THIS ISN'T REALLY MY STORY TO TELL, at least not in the sense that I was a direct participant. This tale is about an unexpected visitor who arrived at my parents' house three years ago, in the middle of the night, and stayed for more than a year. With some households such an event might be rare and could involve an adult son or daughter returning to the fold, a pregnant niece evicted by an angry step-parent, or a deadbeat cousin. In the case of my parents, though, the sudden arrival of someone who becomes a long-term guest is not all that unusual. It has happened several times over the years and generally involves visitors with either more than two legs, or two legs and a beak, or even (in one instance) four legs and a beak. The visitor in this tale was a four-legged critter of the dog type.

My parents were both in their sixties when this started, and living in a house in a gorgeous location perched atop a twenty foot-high sand dune on the shore of Lake Superior. They are about three miles from the nearest community and 20 miles from the nearest town of any size, so the area, while not exactly remote, is certainly not congested or heavily traveled. Amazingly, they had only one permanent guest at the time, a very good natured black lab/Doberman mix that my mother had liberated from the local animal shelter a few years earlier.

Shortly after midnight in mid-October, 1998, my mother was reading in the main level of the house. My father was not yet retired from his university faculty position and he had class early the next morning, so he was already asleep in bed in the upper level. Even in October there are signs of approaching winter in the upper peninsula of Michigan, with numerous freezes, occasional snow flurries, and increasingly frequent storms which can become extremely windy, sometimes with hurricane-force winds. This night wasn't quite that bad, but there was a strong storm underway, with high winds and a lot of associated wind noise, including crashing waves on the beach. In the midst of the racket my mother thought she heard a faint bark outside through all the wind, but she didn't think anything of it until she thought she had heard it several times over the course of several minutes. Then she opened the sliding glass door to the deck and could hear it more loudly, enough to be sure it was real. She later described it as sounding like a "distress" bark, whatever that sounds like.

As I've said, their house is on a high dune about 20 feet above lake level. Their yard is level for 50 feet or so behind the house until the end of the deck, and then there is a very steep drop 20 feet down to a beach that is 10 or 15 feet wide. Because of the steep grade, the shoreline can't be seen from inside the house-- you have to walk out to the end of the deck and look down over the dune edge. She did that and could then hear the dog better, well enough to determine that the sound was coming from down on the beach anyway, but the drop-off down over the edge of the dune prevents any light from their porch light from reaching the beach, so it was totally black down there and she couldn't see anything. My mother's knees are bad enough that she can't get down the dune stairs even in daylight-- she definitely couldn't go down to the beach in near total darkness to investigate.

So, she went inside and woke up my father, convinced him to get dressed, and sent him out over the edge of the dune and into the darkness to "find the dog." My Dad's hearing is not so great to begin with, and with all of the wind and crashing waves he couldn't hear a dog at all, and when he got down to the bottom of the dune he couldn't see more than a few feet because it was dark. He was down there several minutes, essentially blind and deaf from the conditions, and wandering back and forth along the beach calling to a dog he wasn't convinced was there in the first place. He finally found a small dog getting pounded by waves a few feet out into the water, just standing there and barking as waves crashed over it. He waded out and picked it up and hauled it back up the dune and they took it into the house.

It was a sort of a Pomeranian-type dog, male, long golden fur (soaked), about 20 pounds. Its feet were torn up and bloody. It was severely hypothermic and spent the rest of the night shivering violently while they tried to dry it and warm it up. The following day it hardly moved at all, very lethargic and sleeping straight through the day, and they expected that it was going to die. It had no collar or any other form of identification. My mother made some calls to appropriate places to see if anyone had reported a missing critter, but came up dry.

The second day, the dog began to perk up, and ate a little when they brought food to where he had been lying the entire time since his rescue. He eventually got up and started wandering around a little. Over the next few minutes my parents made a couple of startling observations. First, they could tell by the way he walked that his slow, stilted gait was not just a result of his rough experience, but because he was old-- he walked slowly and deliberately, and it looked like it hurt him a bit to do so. During these first few steps after he stood, they also realized that he was completely deaf-- he had no response to any noise stimuli, which explained why he hadn't responded when my father was calling to him on the beach. And then they made an amazing discovery-- the dog was blind. He had no apparent vision at all, not even distinguishing between light and dark areas. He would just walk until he hit something, and then change direction (always to the left) and walk until he hit something else. If he got himself boxed in somewhere he would just stand still until someone came and got him.

They determined over the next few days that he had not come from any of their neighbors' houses in either direction for quite some distance on their road. They never got any positive response to inquiries they made with County agencies where people might have reported a missing dog. It's possible (probable?) someone dumped him because of his age and infirmities, although once he dried out my parents realized he had been fairly well groomed and fed, and was as healthy as one could expect for a blind, deaf, old dog, and my mother would like to think that anyone who kept decent care of a critter to begin with wouldn't later just dump him out somewhere if they could no longer care for him. Anyway, I'm not trying to drag out a surprise ending here-- his origin was never resolved.

There's no way to know how long he was walking on that night, but he shuffled so slowly even when he wasn't running into things that he must have been walking for quite some time, and his bloody feet also suggested a long trek. He could not have started from very close by. Even if he was dumped on the road, which is a few hundred feet from the shore, that means he wandered randomly and literally blindly through the woods until he stepped out into nothing and tumbled over the edge of the dune (which runs 20 feet high all along the shoreline for more than a mile) all the way down to the shore. Once down at the bottom all he could do was wander blindly along the beach, trapped by a steep hill on one side, and pounding storm waves on the other side. Eventually he accidentally strayed out into the water, and being completely blind and being tossed around by the waves, he didn't know which way to go to get out of the cold water. So he just held his ground and stayed in one spot as best he could in the waves, and started to bark.

What were the odds? When he reached his final spot, on a beach in the countryside, he just happened to be directly below a house, where he was close enough that his bark could just barely be heard over the storm noise. There just happened to be someone awake after midnight in that house who had good enough hearing to pick up the faint barking, and who had enough curiosity and concern to investigate. There just happened to be a second person in the house who was a good enough sport to allow himself to be awakened in the middle of the night and sent out into a storm on what he thought was an imaginary wild goose chase.

Within a few weeks it was obvious that no owner was going to be found, and my parents were considering the critter to be a permanent addition to the household for however long he lasted. He had a happy personality and initially never complained about anything, even when he bumped into something hard. He learned the overall layout of the rooms pretty quickly, which was crucial because they had major renovation going on and the location of furniture was always changing. The original dog made attempts to play with him for some time after he arrived, tossing toys toward him, etc., but eventually stopped when she received no response. Of course, the blind critter never knew she was making the offers in the first place, but she didn't know that and eventually pretty much ignored him.

My parents blocked off an area in front of their house where they could put him outside for a few minutes and let him wander on his own without getting away. It didn't take much to pen him in, as he stopped immediately and changed direction whenever he touched something. Even an empty cereal box lying on its side (only 3 inches high) was enough to pen him into the kitchen when that was necessary. If he felt the beginning of a hill, either up or down, he wouldn't continue at all in that direction. That was why we decided that once he had ended up on the beach, however he got there, he would have walked only along the beach-- he would never have started up the dune anywhere, because he was afraid of tilted ground.

There was a stubborn side to his personality, though-- he absolutely hated to be steered in any particular direction. If you tried to push him toward the door, or out of the kitchen, or wherever, he instantly lost all of his age-related slowness and started scrambling his feet 100 miles per hour in exactly the opposite direction. That turned out to be advantageous-- you could just push him in whatever direction you didn't want him to go, and he would immediately wiggle out of your hands, whip himself around 180 degrees, and charge off in the direction you really wanted him to go in the first place, until he smacked into something. This stubbornness and insistence on having his way led to my mother dubbing him "the Captain"-- someone who didn't want to take orders from anyone else. It is as close as he had to a name, and both of my parents referred to him as "the Captain," although my mother more often referred to him as "the little shit."

The first time I met the Captain was during a visit to my parents a couple months after he had arrived. By that point he seemed to have settled in, although with his blindness and deafness he wasn't exactly like most other pets, but he still enjoyed being petted and scritched on the head, and would seek out attention if he sensed someone was nearby. A few weeks later after a session with the dog groomer they discovered that he could very slightly perceive light and dark within a few inches-- not enough to help him, but he would flinch if a sudden movement occurred right in front of his face.

The Captain stayed with them for over a year, and could have stayed considerably longer under the same conditions, but remember, he was very old to begin with, and he continued aging. By the fall season of the following year he had begun to deteriorate in several ways, including becoming very anxious and whining, pacing incessantly (in counter-clockwise circles, which led to another family member bestowing the nickname of "Lefty" upon him), and other behavioral problems. It was also beginning to look as though he had chronic pains, which might explain why he couldn't stay lying down for long, as well as some cancerous growths on his jaw. Between his own continual discomfort and the increasing difficulty of caring for him, it reached a point shortly before Christmas when my parents decided it was time to have him euthanized, and so he made a one-way journey to the vet. I think there were some guilty feelings on the parts of my parents, since the very great inconvenience he had rapidly become just before the end did play small factor in their decision. On the other hand, they were fully aware that because of them he had gotten more than another year out of life, and the method they chose to use for his end was far better than the one chosen by the assholes who had dumped him the previous year.

Well, that's the tale of the Captain.

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