Ron Karpinski ©2007
My wife and I do not share our home with a dog, but we admire them nonetheless, mostly from afar. A sturdy brown lab named Chip lives next door with the neighbors. Some days, when I approach the house, and Chip is frolicking in her front yard, she will race over and nuzzle my leg. I reach down and scratch her behind the ears. She seems to like that.
Admittedly, my knowledge of the animal kingdom is limited, but dogs appear to be extremely intelligent creatures with unique personalities; and they quickly and freely bestow upon their adopted human family unquestioning loyalty and unconditional love. This devotion is almost always returned, automatically, in equally large proportions.
Most people without dogs find it difficult to comprehend the depth and breadth of emotions that pass between humans and canines. No doubt, one must participate in the process to fully understand it. Once in a while, though, a window of opportunity opens for the briefest of seconds, affording an outsider like me a rare glimpse into that other world.
* * * * *
Not long ago, my wife and I traveled to Orlando, Florida, for a weekend visit with another couple. On Sunday, the four of us took a side trip to the suburb of Winter Park. Winter Park contains some of the most exclusive enclaves of old Orlando, including Park Place, our ultimate destination.
Park Place is a trendy neighborhood of former small businesses converted into genteel shops, chic restaurants, and upscale outdoor cafes. It stretches before the front gates of Rollins College, surrounded by Lake Virginia, Lake Osceola, and Winter Park Country Club.
Adjacent to the shopping district lies a city park occupying four blocks of prime real estate. The spacious grounds are crosscut with a network of paved walkways bordered in neatly trimmed hedges. Several fountains featuring bronze statues grace the landscape, as do numerous red brick planters, a gazebo, generously spaced oak and cypress trees, and wide expanses of manicured lawn.
Railroad tracks skirt the far side of the park, entering from the southwest and exiting northeast. On the opposite side of the tracks, a small old-fashioned freight terminal looks deserted. Twice a day, however, trains actually stop at the little station and discharge passengers.
We parked our car at the curb and passed through a short set of columns, connected at the top by a wooden trellis that deflected some of the sunlight. Roses climbed their way up the pillars. The brick surface at our feet led to a small open courtyard with access to the park itself.
A bed of colorful flowers caught our attention -- mums, perhaps -- vivid reds, whites, yellows and pinks. How did they stay in bloom so late in the summer?
As if on cue, a train approached from beyond the bend to our left. The Silver Meteor, a sleek Amtrak passenger train en route from Miami to New York, slowed to a halt. Its procession of gleaming aluminum-sided cars filled the entire length of the park, obscuring the view beyond.
The train stood at the station for ten minutes, air brakes hissing occasionally, while porters transferred baggage. Then the engineer yanked a lever, and two short deep blasts warned of imminent departure. Mammoth diesel engines strained, wheels creaked and groaned, and the leviathan machine slowly inched from the platform, gathered speed, and rumbled out of sight.
The four of us stood in awe, slack-jawed at the spectacle of so much steel and raw power. Everyone, it seemed, had stopped to watch, seduced by sights and sounds from a bygone era.
We continued our walk, taking note of the large number of benches scattered about. They seemed to be strewn haphazardly, with no attempt at order. All were identical, constructed of cast iron and painted in smooth black lacquer. Each had been mounted on a sturdy slab of concrete.
A glint of color caught my eye. Closer inspection revealed that every bench had a plaque embedded in the center of the backrest: four rows of raised brass letters polished to a high sheen. We moved from one to the next, reading the inscriptions.
Citizens apparently had donated the money for each bench. In return, they were allowed to select a specific location for their gift and dedicate it to a person of their choice. Most of the epigraphs paid homage to deceased relatives who had left a major impact on someone’s life.
The messages rang of loving praise to dearly departed mothers, fathers, grandparents, godparents, and favorite aunts and uncles. Then, one simple plaque stopped me in my tracks.
It stood in stark contrast to the rest, different in a fundamental way; yet it conveyed no less poignant a sense of loss, reminding all that grief comes in many forms, and every life is precious.
The burnished brass letters on that one special bench read plain and true: "In Memory of Jeremiah ‘Jake’ Brooks – my best friend and one darn good dog – Murray J. Brooks."
* * * * *
Jake’s bench rests in a small clearing near an ornate fountain with a round trough painted pastel green. Squirrels scamper on the grass twenty feet away. It is the kind of quiet spot where a man might stop for a short break while walking his dog on a warm summer day.
A man might ease his bulk down onto that bench and close his eyes for a spell, savoring the hot sun on his face. Perhaps he’ll catch a whiff of cypress in the air and glance at his watch to see if the Silver Meteor is on time. Maybe he’ll reach out and scratch old Jake behind the ears.
Jake probably liked that.