The Final Walkabout

This essay is about my dog’s last adventure on the lam, and my family’s fear that he wouldn’t come home this time. It’s a love story.

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Adventure on the Jacks Fork

Dad and I were two hours late. The sun had slid behind the bluffs, casting deep shadows on the river. I dug the canoe’s paddle into the water and shivered with anxiety. I scanned the riverbank for the car with Mom waiting to drive us back to the motel. But each bend looked the same, no car, no road. Dad was sure we hadn’t far to go, but I was considering mutiny.

My father was a careful planner. Growing up, I had always felt safe when he was in charge. When his plans proved overly ambitious, his ingenuity for problem-solving took over and disaster was averted. His close calls became fodder for family stories. For example, he refused to stop until the gas tank was down to the last drop, which he alone could calculate. On one summer trip in the Nevada desert, the car coughed and stalled on the interstate. But not to worry! He shifted into neutral and we coasted downhill for a mile, onto the exit, and into a gas station. Chuckling at his luck, he pulled up to the nearest pump.

Sitting in that canoe, I wondered if his lucky streak had come to an end.

The autumn day had been crisp and clear, perfect for canoeing the Jack Forks River in the Missouri Ozarks. My parents had driven from Oklahoma, and I from Memphis, to meet for the trip. It was deer season, and pickup trucks spilling guns and men in orange vests were everywhere.

Our starting point was easy to find—an intersection of two state roads, with a bridge over the river. Dad pulled off the road and we hauled his inflatable canoe onto the sandy riverbank. My mother waited for us to launch before driving to our meeting place downstream.

My father’s love for river rafting had begun the year all of his children had graduated: my older brother from law school, my younger brother from high school, and I from college. To celebrate, he treated us to rafting trip through the Grand Canyon … and he was hooked. Hoping for more frequent but less expensive excursions, he bought an inflatable canoe which he christened The Ducky. He was ready whenever anyone could be persuaded to go with him.

This was my first excursion with The Ducky, and I was surprised to find she maneuvered not like a truck, but like a tank. She had no keel, and she rolled from side to side like a log. But it was autumn, and the Jacks Fork was not a fearsome torrent, so we set out expecting a peaceful ride. The only sounds that broke the woodland quiet were occasional gunshots.

I sat in the bow, so my job was to watch for large rocks and snags. We had been on the river no more than a half-hour when I called out, “Rock ahead!” I paddled furiously on one side, but it was too late. We hit the rock dead center, tearing a hole in the The Ducky’s bilge. The rip was not large, but enough to allow a steady leak. “Just our luck!” Dad lamented.

Every thirty minutes, we pulled to shore to bail in order to stay afloat. The stops were slowing us down, and there was still enough water in the canoe to make us wet and cold. Dad studied the river map, a soggy mess disintegrating in his hands. But he wasn’t worrying, so why should I?

Meanwhile, my mother was puzzling over which road to take to the river. She finally asked a group of hunters, guns in hand and leaning against their trucks, for directions. They gestured toward the dirt road. She turned down the road, bumping downhill. The road narrowed to a track before she saw the water. She parked on the bank and settled back with a book. When one of the hunters camping nearby approached her, she rolled down her window. He invited her to join them for coffee, but she politely declined, explaining that she was waiting for her husband and daughter to arrive.

Dusk came and there was no sign of us. She tossed her book aside, too worried to read, and started the car, inching closer to the river so the headlights pointed upstream. The tires sank into the sandy soil—she was stuck.

The hunter approached again. “Sure you don’t want some coffee, ma’am?”

Again, my mother refused, but this time her desperation tumbled out. Between the car being stuck and her family not arriving, she was frantic.  

Somewhere on the water, in the cold and dark, I was losing patience with my father’s reassurances. Then, through the trees, a campfire glowed. “Dad, there’s a camp!” Without waiting for permission or agreement, I dug my paddle in and pulled for shore with all my might. My father had no choice but to follow.

As we emerged into the firelight, I let my father do the talking. He offered the hunters all the money in his pocket, maybe twenty dollars, to drive us along the river in search of our car, which, he assured, couldn’t be far. When one of the men agreed, we threw The Ducky into his pickup and crammed into the cab.

Dad was right: Less than a mile from our rescuer’s camp, we spotted the top of the Chrysler just below the riverbank. We shouted for the hunter to stop, and piled out. We now faced the problem of getting the car unstuck from the riverbank. The friendly, coffee-bearing hunters came to our aid, attaching a chain and pulling the car onto solid ground.

With a night’s rest, we were ready to analyze the previous day’s incidents over breakfast. We reviewed each mistake, each unfortunate incident with good humor and hindsight: If only we’d gotten an earlier start or missed hitting that rock. “And thank heavens for the hospitable hunters!” I allowed.

“Yes, that was fortunate. But we really were pretty close,” Dad said. I rolled my eyes.

Back in Oklahoma City, he patched the rip in The Ducky and she went on to float again, although never with as much drama.

“We have your daughter…”

It was the Friday before Mother’s Day. I answered my cellphone from an unknown caller and heard a woman’s scream. It sent an electric jolt through me. “Mom! Help me! Oh, my God, they have me!” and then another scream. It was the voice of my daughter, Katie. Or so I thought.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know!” she gasped. “On the freeway!” Another scream.
“Was there an accident?”
In a panic, I paced the floor of my home office. I have two daughters, but the screams had sounded like the elder, who is a middle school teacher. It was 11 o’clock. She should have been in class. Had she gone out for an appointment or an errand at lunch time?
Before I could speculate more, a voice came on. “We have your daughter and she’s OK.” I didn’t recognize the deep, male voice. Was he a police officer? A helpful bystander? My heartbeat slowed. I flipped the call to speaker and rushed downstairs to the family room where my husband was doing his weight routine in front of MSNBC.
“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” the caller said.

Now I saw a school shooting or a drug altercation in the neighborhood. Out of nowhere, dreamlike, my mind concocted a grassy playground, a chain link fence separating the school campus from brushy overgrowth, my daughter monitoring kids. The scene had no resemblance to her school, but became the anchor setting for the narrative I heard next as I demanded to know what had happened.
The voice turned sharp, telling me to calm down and listen. “She saw something she shouldn’t have—”
The grassy playground returned to view, and I heard my daughter yell “hey!” and angrily confront several sketchy-looking men.
“—so my guys grabbed her.”
Then the caller got to the point: “How much money can you get?”
David muted the TV and gave me a quizzical look. I turned to him and whispered, “Call the police.”

The eruption from my cellphone, immediate and palatable, sent me reeling. “You stupid fucking bitch! Do you want your daughter with a bullet in her head? You wanna call the police—you’ll never see your daughter again!”
Through the sheer curtains, I saw David standing on the patio and talking on his phone. As the caller continued to scream, I fled out the front door. The street was empty, the neighborhood quiet. All logical thought was halted, seized in red-hot panic. If someone could hear what I was hearing, maybe they could take charge. But no neighbor was out for a walk, no one was coming home from an errand.
The man cursed and threatened, then gave me another chance to cooperate and pay the ransom. With the caller still on the line, I grabbed my purse and car keys and took off without a word to David.
Now the caller was asking how much money I could get, the name of my bank, the cross streets, the time I needed to get there, and instructing me to report my location at each intersection I passed. Instantly, I saw someone plotting my route on GPS, a white van with Katie bound and gagged in the back, making its way from her school to a rendezvous at the bank.
I stopped at the light next to the police substation, and considered an escape. I could rush into the station, throw my phone at the duty officer. As if a mind reader, the caller warned me against looking for a hero to intervene—just stay on the call and follow the instructions. I saw the van; my daughter. The risk was too great. I reported my location and drove on.
My phone rang. It was David. My hands shook. Will the caller know if I put him on hold and take David’s call? How do I even put a call on hold? There was traffic; I had to watch the road. Disconnecting would lose Katie. David’s call went to voice mail. Again David called, and again. Maybe the police were coming. Maybe he wanted to tell me they would meet me at the bank.
Halfway along the route, the caller turned conversational, calling me “Mom” and asking what I did for work, did I read books? What kind? What movies did I like? How do I spend my free time?
Why was he asking? How dare he try to be friendly, as if we were on equal terms, two people getting acquainted, exploring similar interests. As if we could have a calm little chat while he held a gun to my daughter’s head! This flash of anger somehow restored a sliver of cerebral function, and I refused to share personal information.
“Nothing.” I answered robotically. “No, I don’t like anything. I don’t do anything.”
“You probably don’t even care about your daughter,” he taunted.
“I love my daughter. I’m doing what you say.”

As I parked outside the bank, the caller instructed me to keep the phone on speaker and at my side, but not to speak to him once inside the bank. He wanted to hear what was going on. He told me to get as much cash as the bank would allow immediately.
I found a pen and notepad in my purse and wrote in near illegible scrawl, “Call my husband,” but then I could not remember his cell number. The caller asked what I was doing, so I pushed the notebook into my purse and went inside, forgetting my keys.
I took my place behind two others in line for the tellers. “There’s a long line,” I breathed into the phone, disobeying orders and buying time. I did not know what I was to do with the cash once I had it. I envisioned myself standing outside the bank, cash in hand, as the white van careens into the parking lot. Someone opens the van door, grabs the money, throws my weeping daughter onto the pavement, and speeds away.
More likely there would be a drop-off place. Then how would I know my daughter was OK?
It was my turn to step up to the teller. I needed to stall, try to think. I stepped back and motioned for the man behind me to go ahead. I paced in a tight circle, allowed another customer to pass, bumped into another, and looped again to the end of the line.
Then, my husband who never texted, who refused to text, texted:
GIRLS OK. NO MONEY.
I disconnected the call.

My kids were OK. I could go home. But in an instant my phone rang, the screen displaying “unknown caller,” and panic resurged. The caller and his cronies knew where I was. They were waiting in the parking lot. They may have been watching when I first drove up. Trembling, I rushed across the lobby to a cubicle where a woman was working. I crouched down beside her desk, below the plate glass windows with view of the parking lot, and begged her: “Call the police; someone is outside waiting to attack me!”
Again my phone buzzed in my hand, and as I raised it to see “unknown caller,” the woman asked “Is that him?” I nodded.
Calmly, she told me not to answer the call, as she summoned the bank manager.
The manager arrived and called me by name. She assured me that no one was outside; I was a random victim of a virtual kidnapping. Often the perpetrators are far away, even another country. It was the latest scam; it had happened before. Alerted by my husband when he discovered I had fled the house, the police had called the bank. The tellers had been prepared for me. The manager ushered me into a conference room, offered me water, and called my husband.
As my heart rate slowed, I felt foolish. How was it possible for the logical mind to slip away in an instant, like water through a sieve? Despite all that bolstered my efficacy—college degrees, career accomplishments, problem-solving skills—my reptilian brain had taken charge, inventing scenarios that became reality, sending me practically crawling under a stranger’s desk. The simplest solution—to text my daughters and confirm their safety while keeping the caller on the line, even to wait for my husband to call them—was impossible to manage. Now that was terrifying.
We hear it all the time: In case of an emergency, first don’t panic. Yeah, right.

Crowder Peas

As September waned, our New England garden stood weed-filled and sad with neglect. Late in the third trimester with my second child, I lacked the energy to keep up with the harvest. Tangled tomato vines sagged with the remaining green fruit born too late to ripen. The green beans were all gone, overcome by pests. Two or three obstinate zucchini vines managed to survive the onslaught of cutworms, and surprisingly were still yielding squash. Carrot tops were ankle deep amid encroaching Johnson grass.
 
And then there were the two rows of crowder peas, sprung hearty and strong from the my grandmother’s seeds, handed down summer after summer from some unknown beginning in the warm, Oklahoma earth two generations ago, the soil of my home state. Now, the remaining pods were dried on the vines, rattling in the breeze, waiting to be picked, shelled, and faithfully saved for next year’s planting.
 
My due date was approaching; urgency set in.
 
“We have to harvest and till the garden,” I told my husband. “Once the baby comes, there will be no time, and if we leave it like that through the snow, it will just be a mess in the spring.” We agreed to tackle the chore the next weekend.
 
On Saturday—harvest day—I awoke in the predawn quiet to a dull, tugging ache, little more than a cramp. A clear knowledge pierced my hazy sleepiness: Harvest day would be a birthday.

Careful not to wake Bill and four-year-old Katie, I tiptoed into the kitchen for tea and toast. An hour later, Bill wandered in looking for coffee and found me at the table. “You’re up early. Couldn’t sleep?”
 
“I think we’re going to have a baby today.”
 
“Really! Now? Should we go?”
 
“Slow down,” I laughed. “It’s early. We’ve got lots of time, and besides, we have to get that garden in!”

Five years before, carried helplessly like a seed on the winds of passion, I had quit my job in Memphis to resettle with Bill in Boston, his hometown. For him, the move was a homecoming. His New England roots were deep, and he thrived. No so for me. My south-southwestern sensibilities struggled to take root in Boston’s fast-paced, abrupt social milieu. Drivers leaned out of their car windows to scream at one another; clerks were surly and rude; and the timid were left standing on the subway platform to wait for the next train. I hated having to jockey for position in every queue and feared the white-knuckled game of chicken required to navigate the traffic circles. How I longed for a friendly smile and a syrupy “thank ya, sugah” at the corner store!
 
But once Katie came along, there was no going back. Our family was planted. I would adapt, but Bill and I had a pact: Every year I would need to cultivate my spirit with a trip home to Oklahoma to see family and friends. An infusion of the familiar, a strengthening of ties, and a reconnection to my heritage were the essential elements for my thriving in a new soil. Even more, our kids would know they were a grafting of two places, two families. What they drew from their New England birthplace would be met with some experience from the midlands.
 
After two years, we bought a house in Hanover, a small town on the South Shore, established as Plymouth plantation pilgrims pressed up the North River into the wilderness. Away from Boston’s urban rush, folks were friendlier, or perhaps just nosier and more likely to notice a newcomer. Although the townies could be clannish, they were not beyond being charmed by a stranger.
 
The first summer we put up a wooden stockade fence in the side yard, enclosing the garden plot and Katie’s swing set from the street and neighbor’s yard. The tall fence gave the existing raspberry canes a backbone. A lower picket fence separated the garden from the driveway and opened with a gate next to the garage.
 
A house, a yard, a garden—our own safe little world.
 
Katie started preschool, and attracted playmates whose mothers became my friends. I joined the Congregational Church, smack dab in the town center and backing up to an ancient cemetery where lichen-covered gravestones recorded sturdy English names—Winslow and Whiting, Stetson, Stoddard, and Studley, Tilden and Tubbs, Curtis, Clark, and Crocker—names repeated everywhere in street names, parks, schools, and businesses, covering the town like English ivy. Slowly, I wedged my way through the cracks and crevices of the established order, straining for a foothold, unashamedly using my child to gain entry into women’s friendship networks.
 
The next spring, Bill reroofed and painted our long-neglected house, and then drew a crowd of curious advice-laden neighbors when he and his brothers set upon our yard’s encroaching maple trees with chainsaws. We rented a rototiller to turn the grass-choked garden plot and carried home tips along with supplies from Sylvester’s Feed-and-Seed: Be sure to wait until Memorial Day to put in tomatoes; a paper cup placed around the squash plants will deter the cutworms.
 
New England gardeners planted radishes, lettuce, and peas in the spring, tomatoes, zucchini, corn, and pole beans in the summer. But the season was much too short for okra, and no one had ever heard of crowder peas.

Persuaded that birth was not imminent, the three of us were in the garden by 9:30 a.m., the mild Indian summer sunshine warming our backs. Katie and Bill started with the tomatoes, sorting the fruit that might yet be useful, and throwing rest in the mulch pile. I took the turning fork and headed for the carrots.
 
The cramping in my belly seemed to ease as I stepped down to send the turning fork deep into the brown earth, and bent to heave the soil aside. A mass of small, twisted, truncated carrots emerged. Clearly, carrots had been a mistake: Despite their apparent valiant efforts to grow around the abundant rocks, most were worthless.
 
Some soil defeats the plant.

That previous summer—the first in our own place—I had planted a New England garden, but when we made our annual Oklahoma trip, I visited Gram, the seed-saver. We walked out under the pecan tree, through the arbor that parted the crepe myrtles and iris beds, to her vegetable garden. “I’m glad you’ve got a place for a garden up there in Mass-a-CHEW-sets,” Gram said, sucking on the syllables like they were some exotic fruit. “I’ll give you some seeds to take with you for next year.”
 
In her garage, Gram found a mason jar of dried crowder peas, poured some into an envelope, and sealed it shut with a lick and a smack. “Here you go, Princess, a taste of home.” I accepted the treasure gratefully, feeling like Jack with his fabled magic beans.
 
The peas did well in the rocky Massachusetts soil, and the pests hadn’t yet acquired a taste for them. By early August, we enjoyed at least one good harvest of these meaty legumes, cooked up with a hunk of salt pork, indeed, a savory taste of home. Every bite exploded with childhood memories—scaling Gram’s big pecan tree with my cousins and brothers to claim our favorite branches where we would spy on our summer kingdom; Gram’s knarled, sun-browned hands picking and shelling crowder peas, and then pulling me close on her lap as she sang Sunday school songs; the hot, sticky summer nights thick with cicada songs as I lay on the daybed under the open window in Gram and Granddad’s room, waiting for the distance mournful whistle of the freight trains.
 
Would seeds saved from this Yankee-born crop yield the same intense visions, I wondered, or would time and place dilute the peas’ content and complexity. Could these humble field peas take hold in my children’s memories and produce a new harvest of precious scenes to nourish their lives?

The sun was almost hot now, casting off remnants of the summer passed. Finished with the tomatoes, Bill strode toward the crowder peas.
 
“Do you want me to get rid of these beans?” he asked.
 
“No, we have to pick the pods off. I have to save the seeds for next year.”
Bill looked impatient, wanting to get on with it. “You pull them up and dump them here, and we’ll do the rest,” I offered.
 
Welcoming the chance to get off my feet, I sat with Katie on the grass beside the garden and stripped the dried pods off the vines as Bill pulled them up and brought them to us. We filled her little wagon, and then dumped them into a paper grocery bag.
 
By 1 p.m. I was spent. Bill took Katie with him in the pickup truck to do errands—a visit to the town library, a stop at the dump to drop off the trash—and I lay down for a nap.
 
After supper as twilight swaddled our little house, we sat at the kitchen table shelling the crowder peas into a bowl, listening to the ping, ping as each struck the glass. Labor pains were more organized now, and it was hard for me to sit still. I scooped the seeds into a clean mason jar, sealed the lid, and stored them carefully in the cellar where this progeny would await for our stony garden plot once more to warm and welcome them.
 
The seeds were saved.
 
Harvest makes time to review and plot out the next year’s planting as the gardener learns to match her choices to the idiosyncrasies of soil and sun. The squash will do better there, the tomatoes here. Already I knew where I’d plant the okra—a variety developed specifically for the northern climate—that I’d been overjoyed to discover in Johnny’s Select Seeds catalog: that sunniest spot outside the picket fence in full view of the road. Won’t the neighbors be intrigued!

On Sunday morning, eight hours later, baby Beth was born. She was a perfect beauty. Looking into her moon-shaped face, we saw Watsons and Keetons; Johnstons and Ewings; Cunninghams and Longs—a hearty miracle sprung from the bits of this-and-that, saved, transformed, and passed along, the old emerging all so completely new.
 
Some harvests come slowly, waiting for fullness of time.