A Guardian to My Fellow Americans
The training at Base Little Creek was nearly complete and Todd was given a two-week leave to go home to be with Lindsey who, now well into her third trimester, was expected to give birth any day. As soon as they got permission, Todd and Zip jumped into the Wrangler just after daybreak and started the seven-hour drive up to Burgettstown. Zip loved riding in the Jeep and the fall weather made the temperature just right. The smells were spectacular. Todd left the top down as they drove through the unusually warm morning. Zip could pick up the smells of the different trees, the goldenrod, and the scent of animals as they drove along the edge of the Monongahela National Forest on their way home. The trees were at their glorious peak of color and, while Zip couldn’t completely appreciate the nuances of color, it appeared that Todd was enjoying the sights immensely. Zip found the beauty of this time of year in the wind that brought all the rich, telling scents of the forest to him.
It was a little after 1:00 p.m. when they turned off Route 18 and on to the tree-lined country road that lead to the Little R Dairy Farm. Zip’s nose was as high as it could go as he took in the sights and smells of the farm. As they pulled onto the gravel space outside the small but cozy farm house, Lindsey heard the crunch of the Jeep tires and came out onto the porch. Her belly was so large, she looked like she was about to pop but she moved with lightness and grace as she rushed to meet her husband. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him passionately. Even though they had dated since they were seventeen and were well into their second year of marriage, they still felt the tingle of newlyweds whenever they could be together.
Zip ran up onto the porch fascinated with the new environment. This was new ground for him and he had to make sure everything was secure. He looked out over the barns and feed silos and at the main house just fifty yards away. Quickly he determined there was no real threat and turned his attention to Todd and Lindsey.
“And who is this?” Lindsey said as she looked at the bushy-tailed dog on her porch.
“Lindsey, meet Zip. Zip, this is Lindsey.”
Zip walked up to Lindsey with his head high and his tail in the air. Lindsey bent down and gave him a big hug. Even though she wore no makeup or perfume, she smelled very nice—completely different than the people in his team. An instant feeling of comfort came over him and he rubbed his head against Lindsey’s stomach. At that moment, the baby kicked and Zip jumped back, startled.
“Did you feel that?” Lindsey said laughing.
Zip tilted his head to one side like he always did when he was trying to size up a situation.
Todd said, “Don’t worry, Boy. That’s just your little sister.”
The remark caught Lindsey off guard. Little sister? That was interesting. This was her husband’s K9 partner. Zip didn’t belong to him and she certainly didn’t think the Navy would approve of Todd treating Zip like a pet, much less a member of his family. But there it was. Todd and Zip had already formed a very strong bond. Lindsey knew her husband had a knack for keeping everyone off guard—even the U.S. Navy.
Within a couple of minutes, Lindsey’s grandfather stepped out from one of the barns.
“Hey Froggy!” Stan Ruddy bellowed from just outside the giant barn door. “Whacha got there with you?”
Stan ambled up to Todd and grabbed his hand in a firm shake that quickly dissolved into a sincere hug.
“Pap,” Todd started again with the introductions, “This is Zip.”
“Kind of small isn’t he?” Stan said with a wide grin.
“You should see him work. Pap, I have never seen an animal quite like this.”
“That’s good,” Stan said looking down at Zip. “You better take care of this one, you hear me, Boy? He’s gonna be a daddy!”
From the main house, Val Ruddy watched the happy reunion and stepped out on the big porch to holler across the yard, “Who’s hungry?”
Todd sprinted across the grass and bounded up the steps to pick up Grandma Val and swing her around in a massive hug.
Todd again introduced Zip and they all went into the big old house where Lindsey’s mother had grown up. Val had prepared a magnificent lunch. A platter of cold ham surrounded by bowls of potato salad, bean salad, sweet corn, and fresh biscuits graced the kitchen table. Two berry pies were cooling on the counter. Emily lay under the table and barely even moved when everyone entered the house. She was a massive Newfoundland/English Mastiff mix, and she was no watchdog. Zip stopped and looked at her before walking over. Emily stood up and they greeted each other in the ways that dogs do. Emily very quickly indicated that she had had enough of the greeting and plopped herself down on her bed over near the pantry. Grandma Val fixed Zip a bowl of Emily’s kibble and a fresh bowl of water, and they all sat down for lunch.
Later that afternoon, Shane and Jessica Wagner came out to the farm and Todd introduced Zip to Lindsey’s parents. Then, just before dinner, Bob and Joan Mitchell arrived to join the party and they went through the entire process of introduction again. Val was in her bliss as the group ate dinner and voiced their appreciation of her cooking skills. They laughed, cracked a couple beers and caught up well into the night.
During a lull in the festivities, Todd walked out on the front porch to get some air with Zip by his side. As soon as they stepped outside, Todd’s body reflexively went rigid as the smell of cherry blend pipe tobacco hit him. Ever since he was a boy, Bob Mitchell had smoked the same brand. It signaled his presence and Todd always associated the smell with a prelude to some lecture or other serious conversation.
“Nice night, eh Son?” Bob said from a dark corner of the porch. The orange glow from the bowl of his pipe gave the only indication of his location. “Nasty front is going to move through here later though.”
“Hey Dad,” Todd replied. “Yeah, I heard that on the news. The weather really can change quickly around here.” Todd was trying to think of a way to keep the conversation away from controversy, but he knew it would only be a matter of time.
“Listen,” Bob started.
“Here we go,” Todd said to himself and took a swig from his bottle of Rolling Rock to prepare for what was coming.
“First of all, I want you to know that I’m proud of you. Frankly, I never thought you’d make it through BUD/S but you always did have a way of surprising me. You’ve done well, but how long do you plan on doing this? I mean, now you’re running around out there with a dog. Isn’t that Boomer guy enough for you?”
Todd chuckled a little, being both amused and insulted at the same time by the back-handed compliment and shots at his teammates.
“I guess not,” Todd replied. “I like my team Dad. And I like what I do. Honestly, I can’t understand why you like what you do. You dance around the fringes of the law making arguments for whoever can pay you four hundred bucks an hour. There’s no right or wrong there—only defendants, plaintiffs and settlement dollars. You tell a story, they tell a story and then you sit in a back room and decide who told the best story and how many zeros go on the check. Either way, you get paid. What I do is focused. There are clear objectives and singularity of purpose. No manipulation or gray areas.”
“Heh,” Bob scoffed. “That’s not exactly how it goes in my business Todd and I think you’re being a bit naïve. You’re a tool for the ideologues who see every problem as a nail in need of a hammer. You speak of singularity of purpose. Well, I don’t know what you’ve seen in those other deployments Son, but it appears you’ve been lucky and I pray it stays that way for you. But I doubt it will. There’s going to come a time when right, wrong, objective, duty and honor all get jumbled and tested in the blink of an eye. Do you know how you will handle that? The best of men seldom do.”
He continued, “We have sacrificed at that alter already. Your Great Uncle Ed was killed in Bastogne. Do you remember the Haddads? They have been family friends for years. Their son returned from Vietnam a completely changed man. It was as if someone else had been put in his body. He eventually put a bullet in his head to make the screaming stop. I know that we don’t see eye-to-eye on many things but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you. You’re a good man Todd. I know that. Please don’t ever take our differences for anything other than what they are—differences.”
Then he stood up and walked over to Todd and embraced him. “This whole situation over there is a mess Son. We need to get out. You’ve got too much to lose now. We need you to come back to us the good, strong person you have always been.” He stepped back, wiped the tears from his eyes and cleaned his pipe by banging it against the porch post and walked back inside.
Todd took a seat on the porch steps to finish his beer and Zip came to his side. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen him cry,” he said to Zip putting his arm around him.
Zip spent most of the rest of the evening observing the festivities and watching Emily sleep. As the night wore on, he again walked out onto the front porch of the main house and began to surveil the area around the farm. He could hear and smell the cows in the barns, and the other livestock settling down for the night. He felt his prey drive urge him to pursue that rabbit squeezing through a small fence opening near the garden. But he held his ground, knowing that his training only permitted an attack on command. The sights and sounds and smells of this place were what dog dreams were made of. Above all, Zip was drawn to the peacefulness of it all. He had never before experienced the kind of calmness as in this place.
Later that night, the warmth of the day gave way to a chill as the front Bob talked about swept through the area and dropped the temperature by a full thirty degrees. The wind kicked up and thumped tree branches against the little house. Todd and Lindsey lay covered in a thick comforter and Zip stayed positioned at the foot of the bed, curled on an old blanket, listening to the sounds of the wind gusts. As the temperature dropped, the furnace kicked on and warmth wafted up from the floor. Zip moved himself over to the furnace grate and plopped himself down, half covering it. The whisper of toasty air flowing up from the basement calmed him and drowned out the blowing wind.
The next morning, Todd was up and moving at 0630. The SEALs had taught him to rise early and, even on days he could sleep in, there was something that nudged him from rest and into being productive. While Lindsey still slept, he changed into sweatpants, a Penguins sweatshirt, and pulled on a wool cap marked with the SEAL trident. He looked over at Zip and made the soft clicking noise he used to call Zip when he wanted him to come quietly. Zip popped up from his spot near the register and tiptoed out with Todd to the front porch. The morning air was cold and there was moisture on the ground from when the front moved through. Zip scanned the farm grounds and noticed the mist of the morning and the first signs of daylight as the black of night transformed to the gray of morning and shades began to appear. Todd stepped off the porch and broke into a trot and Zip gave chase. Lately, Todd had gotten into the habit of letting Zip operate off his lead more than he should, which was another breach of Navy protocol. But Todd could count on Zip and, aside from Zip’s predilection for lounging on furniture, found him to be completely disciplined when it came to obeying commands. He trusted his partner.
Zip was on the best run of his life. They ran through the woods along a trail and down to the edge of a wide lake that served as one of the county’s reservoirs. The breaking daylight, crunching leaves, bird calls, and fascinating smells hanging in the still, damp air put him in a state of heightened awareness. After running for a full forty-five minutes, they stopped at a rock point on a ridge that overlooked a valley and the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania; a spectacular view. Zip sat quietly at Todd’s side, watching him watch the sun rise. The dampness was lifting and it would be a crisp fall day.
Todd sat down and rubbed Zip under his chin. Then he breathed a deep, uncharacteristic sigh. The silence between them and the start of a new day made him pensive. The weight of his new responsibilities, the unknowns of fatherhood, and the fact that he now had to make decisions beyond those selfish and foolish conveniences of his youth had been sinking in for days. The conversation with his dad and seeing him weep for the first time gave him a completely different perspective of his father. Todd needed someone to be there while he worked through it all—not to fix anything or do anything in particular—just to listen. Having Zip next to him somehow made him feel cared for, supported, and understood. After it all poured out of him, he sat there for thirty minutes without uttering another sound. Zip sat upright like a sentry, his breath condensing in the cold air. Then Todd snapped out of it, as if he had figured everything out.
“OK, Boy. Let’s head on back and get some breakfast!”
And just like that, Todd was off again and Zip right along with him.
When they got back to the farm, Emily was out in the driveway and managed a half-hearted howl that wouldn’t intimidate anything. Lindsey was up and over at the main house finishing a cup of decaf, while Stan was already out tending to the animals. Val fixed Todd a plate of bacon and eggs and served it up with a steaming cup of black coffee. Zip slurped at the bowl of water that Val had ready for him, getting more of it on the floor than in his mouth. Then she poured the last of the bacon drippings over his bowl of dog food. Zip ate like he had missed a week of meals, pounding the stainless steel bowl against the wall with his nose as he licked up every morsel.
Later that day, Todd, Val, and Lindsey drove up to Robinson Township to pick up some more baby supplies and a few last pieces of layette. They left Zip with Stan to run the farm. Stan took Zip outside and let him go into the barns to see the livestock. He was fascinated with the way that Zip seemed to want to go to work. Stan kept a number of goats and sheep in a one-acre pen outside the main barn that were presently holding Zip’s attention. Stan hesitated a bit and then opened the pen gate to see what Zip would do. Zip flew through the open gate and Stan gasped, thinking he had made a terrible mistake and that Zip was going to attack the livestock. Zip flew at tremendous speed, closing ground between him and the bleating sheep in seconds. Just when he looked like he would pounce on the animal furthest outside the herd, Zip spun sharply to his right. As the lone sheep scampered farther away from the group, Zip cut him off and drove him back to the flock.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Stan muttered to himself as he watched Zip instinctively run circles around the goats and sheep, keeping them in a tight group. Once Zip was sure he had them all together, he jumped up on a stump that Stan used to chop logs and surveyed “his” herd. Stan was surprised by Zip’s speed, but his drives to cut across the sheep paths in anticipation of their movements astonished him. Todd was right. This dog was special. Stan looked down at Emily who had wandered up next to him in order to get a better view of all the commotion.
“Why can’t you do that?” he said.
Emily moaned and draped her huge head over a strand of pen wire, and then let out a deep sigh to let him know that she couldn’t care less.
Late in the afternoon, everyone returned and Val pulled a pot of stew off the stove that had been simmering all day. Beef stew and biscuits were on the menu tonight and Todd’s parents once again came to join them for dinner. After a couple of rounds of Euchre and more reminiscing, things broke up around 11:00 p.m. The Mitchells had just pulled away when Lindsey felt the first contraction. It was hard. Her water broke and she knew that it was time. Todd went into command mode.
But Zip sat in the corner, confused by the orderly chaos. Lindsey seemed to be hurt and upset, and everyone was doing something quickly. Todd was ignoring him. This was obviously an important mission. Why wasn’t he being told what to do? Why wasn’t he part of this team? He looked at Emily, then crawled under the table to lie next to her. Maybe this was the best place to be right now.
Todd called the Mitchells back to the house and got the Wagners on the phone, and before long a small convoy was off for the hospital. Stan and Val stayed behind to man the phones and keep coffee on. They made sure Zip had plenty of water and had been taken out and left him in the small house by himself.
In the early hours of the following morning, Lindsey and Todd welcomed Caroline Katherine Mitchell into the world. Todd could not have been prouder and held his little girl for as long as he possibly could before the nurses made him give her up so mother and daughter could get some rest. Satisfied that his girls would be taken care of, he finally came back to the farm in the middle of the afternoon and greeted Zip with a giant hug and a short wrestling match. Val had left him a plate of warmed-over stew and a note to call if he needed anything. It was Great Gran and Gramp’s turn to see the new baby. Exhausted, he fell asleep on the couch watching the Pitt football game, with a great big smile on his face.
Zip never saw Todd so happy. He paced through each of the rooms of the small farm house one more time before taking up a position between Todd and the front door. They both slept soundly.
Two days later, it was time for Lindsey and Caroline to come home from the hospital. Val and Stan made a small homecoming reception for them and then left the new family alone to get acquainted. Todd made one more introduction to Zip.
“Hey, Boy,” Todd whispered. “This is your little sister, Caroline. She’s very small now and not much fun. But someday you two are going to be great friends.”
Something came over Zip when he saw the baby. He had never felt a stronger protective urge. He didn’t know why, only that he could never let any harm come to this little thing. During her first full day at home, Zip refused to leave Caroline’s side. He followed Lindsey wherever she took the baby, always setting up station between the mother, daughter, and nearest access point into the room. Any threat moving toward the two of them would have to get through him first. During the first night, Lindsey was sleeping soundly when Todd awoke, surprised to find Zip missing from the foot of the bed. He padded down the hall to Caroline’s room next to theirs. There was Zip, positioned directly underneath the crib with an overview of the entire room, his head covered in shadows. Todd smiled and returned to bed. Each time Caroline moved or began to fuss, Zip was back in their bedroom, nudging Todd or Lindsey to attend to her needs.
This was the process for the next several nights. Todd even had trouble getting Zip out on their morning runs. After a week, it was time for Todd and Zip to head back to the base. Todd knew another deployment was coming and was finding it hard to break away this time. Zip was finding it harder. When the Jeep was packed and everything was together, Todd gave Lindsey and Caroline a final kiss goodbye and called for Zip. There was no response.
Zip sat motionless on the porch. He could not figure out why Todd would want to leave this place, and he certainly didn’t want to go. Todd whistled and snapped at him. “Zip! Let’s go! We’re going to be AWOL.” Zip didn’t budge.
Lindsey walked up to Zip with Caroline in her arms and bent over and whispered to him, “Look Zip, you need to go with Todd. We’ll be fine. He needs you now. We will all be waiting for you when you get back, but right now you need to take care of Todd for all of us.” She cradled Caroline next to him, and hugged him around his neck with her free arm, “Now go do your job.”
Zip looked at Lindsey and licked her face and sniffed at Caroline, licking the top of her head.
One last time Todd called for Zip and he reluctantly trotted off the porch and up into the passenger seat of the Jeep. Todd walked back and hugged everyone again, with one last stop for Lindsey and Caroline.
“I love you,” he said, gazing at them together.
“We know.” Lindsey grabbed him around the neck and kissed him, battling back the tears. “You have a good partner. Now go on and look out for each other and don’t do anything stupid.”
Todd jumped into the Jeep, slid on his sun glasses, and threw his shoulders back. “Let’s go to work,” he said to Zip as he put the vehicle in gear and they pulled out of the drive.
Lindsey could no longer keep up the brave smile, and she began to sob as she watched the Jeep drive out of sight.