Ritti

In or out of heat, “fixed” or not, a boy dog who’s set his boy-dog heart on a suitable girlfriend will respond with vigor and enthusiasm to hearing that girlfriend’s name, no matter what, where, or how. We figured that, and—I shamefully admit—we took unfair advantage of that.

This is what happened:

One fine day in the summer of 1957 (or thereabouts) my mom surprised us all (my dad included, I believe) by (after calling me and my little sister back from whatever we were doing wherever we were doing it and into the kitchen, right away, come see) slowly unwrapping (un-blanketing, really) a large box (cage, really) containing what she proudly informed us all was an army dog.

This army dog turned out to be a pure-bred German shepherd pup (they did not come cheaply, even then) named Grip and he came free of charge—meaning that my family—in other words, my mom—would serve as a dog-host to Grip whenever he was not called away for training or active service.

This wonder of a little dog was to be trained as a mine-detecting dog (they do have a fantastic sense of smell do these dogs), and his initial training spell—four months, as I recall—would not be until the following summer.

Yes, here he was, gray, black and white and all paws and ears. Now, I don’t know if all puppies are the same but what struck me most about this Grip of ours was that his paws and ears seem to have arrived fully grown, somehow affixed to a much too tiny a body—I mean, for heaven’s sake, he would trip over his ears and fall and roll over. Seriously, he did. We could not stop laughing, and he didn’t mind.

Wonderful temper, too, great with us kids, especially with Lili-Ann who was only going on four at the time. And so, while he was away now and then, he stayed with us most of the time and grew and grew and eventually, as fully a grown near-wolf, turned into one very impressive canine. Didn’t like other dogs too much, even bit half an ear off of one, but that’s another story.

In this story, one of Mom’s friends also had a German shepherd, a lady one. Her name was Ritti, and Einar (that was the guy’s name) would bring her along whenever he came to visit. Needless to say, even though I believe Grip was “fixed” as they way, a deep and for all intents and purposes meaningful relationship developed between the two shepherds and it did not take long before all you had to do to perk Grip’s ears right up was to say “Ritti.” Where, where, where? He’d scratch at the door to be let out. And to be fair, most of the time we Ritti’ed him was when we saw Einar’s car come down the road that led to our little cottage in the field. We’d let him out and he’d run in circles of anticipation (literally) until Einar arrived and parked and let her out to say hi.

So that’s one component to the story: Grip and his true dog-love for Ritti.

The other component is an amazing phenomenon that happened (still does, I assume) every spring in my northern parts of the country: We call it “skare”.

Skare is the crust—often thick and strong enough for a grown man to walk upon, no problem—that forms when evening and cooler air sets on the fields of snow whose surface have partially melted (slushed) during the warmer sunlight hours. After a warm March day, the evening (and the following morning) can see miles and miles of whited, walkable fields stretch in all directions. Sometimes this crust (skare) was so strong we kids could play soccer on it—especially if a day following a warm one returned to frigid temperatures.

As an aside, I was talking to a woman from Quebec, Canada one day, telling her about skare and asking if they had the same where she came from, and yes, she said, they sure did. And not only that, she had once experienced the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon where the melting had been so severe during the day that once the evening came and the following much colder day, the surrounding fields were all skate-able. The surface of the crust had turned smooth, skate-able, while fields. What a picture. Did they skate it? I asked. Why, of course.

Back to Grip.

So, there’s a third component and that is that Grip knew how to pull a dog-sled: a light sled with just-about room for one small sister and one older brother with a bamboo harness. Grip actually liked to pull, but didn’t much appreciate it if there were more than one of us in the sled. He preferred Lili-Ann, of course, being the lighter pull.

This is now the later afternoon of a warm day and the crust is very much walkable and (of course) sled-pullable. So we harness Grip up and set out. For most of the outward leg of this experiment I walked beside him, and Lili-Ann sat in the sled. I would run occasionally and Grip would run too. Very much fun for both dog and little sister. After about half a mile or so I stopped and so did Grip, while I eased myself into the sled behind my sister and then we both cried the magic word: “Ritti!”

You have no idea how fast a dog can run, even pulling two children in a sled, when he’s heading back home at the beckoning of his heart. I mean, fast. Very fast. We were both screaming with, yes, joy, for this was amazing, and he didn’t slow down, not even a bit, but just kept charging and we’d keep tossing him the verbal Ritti-carrot every so often just to ensure velocity. And here we come, incredible miles and hour toward our little cottage and it’s attached barn and now we’re heading into the snow-covered front year at non-diminished speed and here comes the not metaphorical barn door and here stops Grip on a dime—a feat not replicated by the sled and its two passengers: ending in a pile of dog, sled, children and shrieks. The initial (and quick) terror turned to relieved laughter as we discovered that nothing (including Grip) was broken and the only thing that put a damper on things was Mom who at this point had to rush out to see what could possibly have run into the barn door with such a fracas.

Yes, we could see her point, Grip could have been hurt. One of us could have been hurt. Yes, we promised, not again, even again.

And here stands Grip, broken-hearted (the only casualty) and wondering what had happened to Ritti.

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