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Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Mum’s the Word, Right Runty?

Terry Berkson gives friend Runty a snuggle. (Photo provided)

Recently, my neighbor across the road asked if I would feed and water his horses for a couple of days while he and his wife traveled out to Ohio to visit relatives. He, in turn, tends to my chickens when we go on a trip. I had taken on this chore before, so I knew how much grain and how many flakes of hay to give each horse. Ranger, a retired chestnut trotter with three white stockings, would get a full scoop of oats and two flakes of hay twice a day. The ponies would get a quarter scoop and only one flake twice a day. There was also a new addition to the animals in the barn—a spirited one-year-old black and brown short-haired mutt named Runty. I was asked not to let him out of the barn “because he likes to run and might not come back for hours.”

While I was taking care of the horses, Runty was racing through the building like The Road Runner. A few minutes later he stopped short and jumped up on my leg for a pat on the head. I obliged, but my reward didn’t seem to calm him. I’ve had plenty of experience with dogs so, when I was finished dishing out the dry feed, I sat down on a bale of hay and lifted the squirming mutt onto my lap. He seemed to savor the attention and in a short time I had him calm and walking at my side as I picked up a couple of empty water buckets. I carefully opened the barn door while heading for a spigot on the side of the house as Runty went into high gear and breezed past me before I could close the door. First he headed for the road but then he changed his mind and began crashing through drifted snow in a nearby paddock. I thought of my neighbor’s warning and called to the dog, but he just ignored me.

Meanwhile, I broke out the remaining ice in the bottom of the buckets and turned the handle on the spigot to refill them, but there was no water. The pipe was probably frozen. I’d have to go inside the house to use the kitchen sink. When Runty saw that I was headed for the front door he raced toward me, but I beat him to the entrance, narrowly closing the door before he could get his muzzle inside. He jumped incredibly high, scratching at the door’s glass window, his steaming tongue hanging out between barks. Time passed and he seemed to grow tired and calmer as the water from the kitchen faucet filled a bucket.

Then the mutt started barking again, but his tone was kind of muffled and he wasn’t scratching at the door. The barks turned into yelps and I realized that the dog was crying. I went to the door and looked through the glass.

There was Runty, with his chin resting on the metal threshold. He tried to lift his head but I saw that his tongue was stuck frozen to the aluminum plate. He shook his head back and forth as though he were tugging on a piece of rope. The scene had played through my mind before, only it was a boy on a bet with his tongue attached to a cold railroad track, a train approaching and no warm water around to unfreeze the tongue—except what his three friends had to offer. Needless to say, he was saved. Luckily I didn’t have to go that route and had a bucket handy. I grabbed the dog’s collar before dousing him with water. When he was free, I picked him up and carried him back to the barn. There were bright red blood spots on his tongue. I felt guilty for not having successfully kept the dog in the barn. When I headed back to the house to get the water for the horses, the dog didn’t bark or attempt to squeeze through the door. He was too busy licking his wounds—if that’s possible. From my experience with eating hot pizza, I know that tongue burns heal fast. Runty and I agreed to keep our mouths shut about the incident.

Terry Berkson’s articles have appeared in “New York” magazine, “Automobile” magazine and many others. His memoir, “Corvette Odyssey,” has received many good reviews: “highly recommended with broad appeal,” says “Library Journal.”

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