An Ode to Winter

by Joe Thomas

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This is a story about how a fat, lazy black lab who wouldn’t hunt taught me to be an adult.

In Georgia, there are few things more highly regarded than a bird dog. Waynesboro, Georgia, is the “Bird Dog Capital of the World”. The love and care given to a good hunting dog can exceed that given to less-favored members of one’s own family. But in this case, the dog in question hides from loud noises, sees retrieving as little more than a game of keep away, and will stay for about four seconds if I try to walk away from him. He also may have saved my life.

As a 21 year old living in Athens GA, it was generally my goal to leave parties responsible for little more than getting home safely, a relatively simple task that I managed to fail at with a frequency that will probably alarm my mother when she reads this. The idea that I would go to a party and threaten my efforts to avoid all responsibility by doing something as reckless as adopting a dog seemed, well, crazy. But when I walked into a house on a cold night just before Christmas in 2007, into a room full of people in awful sweaters listening to bad hip hop, there was a perfectly calm lab curled up on the couch, looking frankly, terrified. I fell in love immediately.

Winter (I didn’t name him; my girlfriend at the time did. I was trying, as all good Georgia boys in their early 20s do, to decide whether to name him after a UGA football player or a brand of beer) came into my life through the efforts of great friends and some leftover macaroni and cheese.

For much of my life, I have spent my summers at Camp Mikell, the Episcopal Church camp for the Diocese of Atlanta. As a camper, counselor, summer staffer, and later as a dean, I have made most of my closest friends in woods of northeast Georgia. While many people say goodbye to their camp friends at the end of the summer, that was never the case for us. For most of the year, we looked forward to annual get-togethers; crawfish boils, a party known as “Big Canoe”, and an annual Christmas party. Traditionally, the Christmas party was held the night after the new staff members were interviewed; it was a time when many of the current summer staff were back home from college.

As several of the staff members were getting ready to leave camp in the winter twilight near Toccoa, GA, the still of the woods near the parking lot was broken by a commotion coming from the bushes. Knowing that camp had had a boar problem around that time, it was not a harmless sound. But from the underbrush came bounding not a boar but a black dog, underfed but still massive, excited and happy to see people. To this day Winter still approaches visitors in this overly joyous and slightly intimidating way, a manner that few would expect if they knew the attachment he has developed with a certain couch in my living room.

He was smelly but in good spirits when he was found, and wearing the orange collar known world over to hunters. But he lacked tags, was malnourished, and was somewhat skittish despite his joy at being found. I later came to find out that Winter hates loud noises; thunderstorms, the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve are traumatic times for my otherwise unshakable companion. All signs point to a gun dog who wouldn’t hunt, was abused and then abandoned. No one answered the postings around Toccoa about a missing black lab.

My friends cleaned him up in the camp showers (sorry if you’re reading this Mikell staff!) They broke into (er, visited) the dining hall and made him a plate of leftovers; green beans, macaroni and cheese, and chicken tenders. To this day, Winter will sit on your feet and stare at you intently if you’re eating mac and cheese. And then they started the trek from Toccoa to Athens for the party that night.

When I saw him I knew he was the one. I had been thinking about getting a dog for several months, but hadn’t pulled the trigger. His eyes followed me as I walked around the room, hugging friends and grabbing a drink. He watched as we danced and sang. And when I sat on the couch where he was curled up, he put his head in my lap, and in all the chaos we just sat. I never had a chance.

My early years in Athens were a time when I drifted from house to house, managing to hold down a horrible job in a parking deck while I enjoyed all the perks of being a UGA student (the nightlife, the music, the girls) without the inconvenience of actually having to go to class. I read a lot, hiked, watched the same movies 1,000 times since we couldn’t afford cable, and generally acted like someone without a care in the world.

I didn’t grow up with a dog in the house; we had pets without fur, so instead I had fish, my sister had a leopard gecko, and for a brief period of time I was the proud owner of an iguana named Jack who is now buried in my parents’ back yard in Atlanta. I had no idea what it took to own a dog, no clue what they needed or what was involved. I never had to leave the bar early, or go home on my lunch break, or decide I couldn’t go camping for a weekend because there was nobody to watch him before.

Winter changed everything. During those years in my mid 20s other things changed, but there was always Winter, waiting patiently. Soon I was paying for things like dog food before beer, making sure I got home safely so he could go outside, and making sure he saw the vet on a regular basis.

One night, early on in my time with Winter, I was at home with and let him out to go pee. I knew I should have put him on a leash, but I had had a few bourbons and forgot. He was young, and hadn’t gotten fixed. He caught a scent and took off. I wandered around my neighborhood hollering his name, probably waking up the students that lived on my street. Finally I broke down and called my friend up the street, one of the folks who had found my wandering friend in the first place, and told her that Winter had taken off, and that I couldn’t drive to go look for him. I stayed at the house, morosely shaking a box of milk bones hoping he could hear them. After what seemed like an eternity Whitney called and said she had found him, alive thank god, wandering down MLK a quarter mile away. Through the haze of terror and relief and liquor I came to the conclusion that things would have to change if I were going to take care of this dog.

It takes different people different things to learn how to be an adult. For some folks it’s tragedy, or family, or a job. Often times, we don’t recognize the things that help us grow in the moment; we have to wait to see the progress we’ve made and what the catalyst was, after the fact. There have been several times in my life that I can point to as highs and lows, in much the same way that you can stand on the beach and point to where high and low tides rest. But it is harder to see what the impetus behind positive movement is. As silly and small as it may seem, for me it was a black lab that ran out of the cold December woods in north Georgia.

Through all of our adventures, my growth as a person and Winter’s growth (outward, mainly, he’s a bit of a chubster in his old age), he has been a patient companion, dealing with my efforts to get to be a better dog owner and a better person. He is there when I get home, and understanding when I don’t get up quite as early as he had liked. They say they a dog takes after their owner, adopts their mannerisms and attitudes, but in this case I feel like Winter has taught me more than I could ever teach him. He has taught me to grow up, to be responsible, and that a good friend will always be there. As long as you remember to feed him.

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