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Mervyn The Hired Hand

Santa’s Farm Dog

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Mervyn The Hired Hand

My mother’s father was a wiry old cuss, more elf than Santa but for one thing: he was a story teller. I guess he had to be, raising ten kids on an old dairy farm in the rocky hillsides of middle upstate New York during the Great Depression. He had an amazing ability to sit down with children and spin a bedtime story out of thin air on the spur of the moment, sometimes starting with something mundane that had happened the same day, but never telling the same story twice. We kids were spellbound as we listened quietly—probably the only quiet time during the day—to Granddad tell his bedtime tales. Ah, what I would give for a book of those stories today!

This was no sentimental softy charming the children. He had a grip of iron when he squeezed your knee, and his word was law when settling squabbles. He had been a lumberjack, a plumber, a furniture re-upholsterer, and eventually a dairy farmer to feed his kids while others stood in bread lines. Skinny as a rail and tough as nails, none of my larger uncles would stand up to him. But he had a soft spot for kids, and an imagination to rival Mother Goose.

He also had an old red dog named Fritz. Nobody knew what kind of dog Fritz was, but he was about the size of a border collie, covered head to toe with long rusty red hair, and his tail held up like a flag. This was a farm dog: twice a day Granddad would make a small hand motion telling Fritz to go get the cows. That sleepy red dog would suddenly tear out of the yard like a tornado, streaking down the hill, across the creek and up through a distant pasture. A half hour later, he’d bring 60 dairy cows slowly into the barn for milking. Fritz was an amazing dog, quick to find the cows, but never rushing them to the barn, so they never lost their milk. And he never left one out to pasture, bringing in every stray.

One cold, stormy Christmas Eve, Granddad told a bedtime story about his forgetting the cows had been shut in the barn all day due to the weather, and sending Fritz out to bring them in for milking by mistake. Fritz was off like a flash, skidding around the corner of the barn to find the cows. He was gone an unusually long time.

After awhile, Granddad remembered the cows were still in the barn. He began to wonder what was taking Fritz so long to figure it out and started milking, when suddenly there was a loud commotion at the barn door, which remained open about a foot. Granddad looked up to find a mob of every goose, chicken and barn cat on the farm squeezing through the door opening, carefully herded by that red dog Fritz.

Not finding any cows in the pasture, Fritz had done the best he could, bringing everything else he could find into the barn. Apparently Fritz had a rather strong herding instinct, and wanted everyone to be included. We kids all laughed and marveled at this story of the red dog with a determined but gentle Christmas spirit. Then we went quietly to bed.

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