Walk #18: America

It’s the morning of the Fourth of July and Sam is wearing a red, white, and blue scarf, a little touch from the groomer. It’s a cloth bandana with images of nautical flags and it’s tied around her neck. I never liked those silly scarves, but it’s the holiday, so I tolerate. Still, it feels a bit like forced patriotism. I’m probably overthinking it.

We walk a quiet neighborhood. No one is out in the first couple of blocks. But signs of Independence Day are everywhere—red, white, and blue door ribbons at a front entrance to one home, small American flags line the walkway of another, a child’s bike rests in a yard with the spokes of its wheels laced with crepe paper in holiday colors. One might sense a bit of pride running through these streets, pride in country, despite the rat’s nest we are in—trade wars with China, a war of words with North Korea, deep questions about immigration, and a president with zero class, no empathy, and questionable ethics.

“What is it we’re celebrating here, Sam?” I ask.

Sam sniffs some daylilies along the parkway on the street near the railroad tracks.

As we head east, the neighborhood begins to come alive—a runner, early dog walkers, and several adults on bikes, one after another. This is not the usual morning crowd; these are the holiday people, the ones taking advantage of a day off to get outside before breakfast, before firecrackers snap, charcoal burns, and the town’s parade steps off.

I stop at the corner and look at Sam. That stupid scarf. I untie it, remove it, and tuck it in my pocket. Sam does not protest. She is rather indifferent, it seems.

It’s an odd relationship I have with this holiday. I love my country, but not blindly. I believe patriotism also means pointing out what needs work, what needs attention, what we do wrong. And I scowl at nationalism, the sightless admiration of a country just because it’s your country. I was never in the military. Missed the mandatory draft. Wouldn’t have gone to Vietnam if called on, instead I would have left on a bus to Montreal. And my father, who was a veteran of the Korean War, told me he would have bought my ticket.

Would I have fought for my country at another time, in another place? Maybe. I can’t say for sure what I would have done. I like to think that I would have. But, honestly, I don’t know.

“Sam,” I think aloud, “would you fight for your country?”

Dogs have a long history of being in warfare. In ancient times, dogs were used as scouts. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians used them as sentries and patrols. George Washington, who would later be named the Commander and Chief of the Continental Army, brought his favorite dog, named Sweet Lips, with him when he attended the First Continental Congress in 1774. And dogs are so keenly loyal, a trait necessary for military service. It’s a natural behavior for dogs. The pack animals and the pack survive because members of the group depend on each other, not unlike a military unit, a squadron, a platoon. But would she serve? Like me, I guess it depends.

Still, on this walk on this day, it is hard not to feel a little something good and just about America. It remains a shining light for many, despite its imperfections. After all, the day is really not about military service but rather a celebration of an incredible idea—American democracy, even if it is flawed, flawed when the Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia, and flawed today. Flawed like all of us, like our heroes, our families, our lovers, our friends, and yes, Sam, even our dogs. And again, on the matter of whether Sam would fight for the country—she wouldn’t, unless I trained her to do so. Like humans, dogs are not natural fighters. Their instinct, like ours is to want to bond. If a dog is a fighter, it’s been conditioned to be that way but a human, who for whatever reason, believe the animal should be aggressive, combative. Dogs, like us, don’t want to fight. They want to love and be loved. I like to think that instinct is more linked to the idea of America than warfare ever should. Even though we fought bloody battles for our independence, what makes us a good country is our ability to want to bond, to be empathetic. America is like Sam. It wants to love and be loved and to accomplish this, it doesn’t need to wear a silly red, white, and blue scarf and blindly wave its flag. Like Sam, it simply has to care.

Walking north now toward home, I see a small dog, a terrier of some type, sniffing around a garage door. It is unleashed, untethered, free and roaming. The dog sees us, Sam and me, and scampers closer. Sam notices and pulls on her leash. She does not bark or growl, instead there is simple interest. Who is this dog?  We slow down and the dog follows, its tiny tail raised and twitching. “Hello,” I say. The dog ignores my greeting and rushes to Sam. The two dogs sniff each other. And from over my shoulder I hear, “Can you grab him?”

A woman walks barefoot from two houses south, carrying a small leash.

“He got out the back door,” she says.

I reach to corral the dog, but it darts into a yard a few feet away. Sam pulls toward it and appears to block the dog in between a large bush and a tree, as if to keep it from dashing off. Sam then stands close to the dog, her long legs on either side of it, obstructing its movement.

“Thank you,” she says to me. “And thank you,” she adds, nodding toward Sam.

“Almost looks like Sam knows what she’s doing,” I laugh.

“Oh, I think she knows,” the woman says. “She was trying to be helpful.”

I’m not ready to give Sam that much credit, but it would be nice to think she truly had been trying to help, that she cared about the little dog’s safety, about the woman and her worries that the dog might be too hard to catch. It would be nice to think Sam had been showing empathy, that her instincts were for good.

After thanking us again, the woman leashes her dog, and as she walks back home, she calls to us, “Happy Fourth!”

There are no fireworks yet, it’s too early to light the grill, and the band members in the parade have not yet gathered together to play Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” but Independence Day is here, the idea of America is still alive, and its people and its dogs, in some small way, must believe that if we keep helping each other, being good to one another, this lofty experiment still has a chance.

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