Dog Days

I was hanging around Keystone's country store one morning when a tourist came in breathlessly informed us that “There's a dog outside.” I looked out the window and, sure enough, there was a dog. A husky with blue eyes who came by every morning to mark his territory. The dog belonged to a neighbor ... a retired dentist.

The tourist apparently was concerned that a dog should be allowed to roam the streets freely and thought something needed to be done. I was reminded of a time when I saw an “unattended” dog on Orchard Road in Singapore. Four police cars with two officers each and two animal control vans, also with two attendants, were dispatched to arrest the dog. A force of a dozen people seemed adequate. Something was done. Vicious Dog

Keystone, like many small Western towns, still has free-range dogs. Free-range kids too, at least in the areas away from where tourists go. If you live here you know the dogs by name, Mica, Ruger, Pearl, Ninny, Cookie and Sluggo (now deceased) . Most of these pets look fit and healthy, except for the bulldog Sluggo who was fat and ugly. I'm not going to suggest that pets look like their owners, but …. oh, Hell, they do. Free-range kids seem to be fit and healthy too. Perhaps this is because, unlike the kids in many suburban utopias, they don't get hustled everywhere in over-sized SUVs. If they want to get somewhere they have to walk or ride their bikes.

For kids in small towns, activities are organized by mom opening a door and pushing them outside shouting the word “PLAY!” Mothers feel safe doing this because there is a sense of community. They know their kids will be OK. Neighbors will keep an eye on them and there aren't many ways to get into trouble.

“Go out and play,” is an admonishment with few warnings and no advice. That's because mothers know that if they tell a kid not to do something, he – they are always boys – will do it anyway. My mother may have missed that class in mom school because when I was about 12 she would always say: “Don't play in the river.” Well, invitations don't get much more explicit than that. Besides the river had everything a kid could ever want, including other kids whose mothers told them not to play there either.

All of us were aware that there were some things to watch out for, chief among them were rattlesnakes. If we were lucky enough to find one, we'd torment it with a long stick then try to kill it for the rattle. All the snakes I ever chased got away. One day, though, a rogue rattler bit through my canvas shoe. This drove home the point that perhaps mom could possibly been right for a change.

RiskLike any 12-year-old in that situation I knew my life was over, either from the snakebite or by my mother. The snakebite seemed like a better way to go and I figured it would be best to die at home so I ran back to the house and waited. I suppose it goes without saying that I didn't die. After about an hour, I took off my shoe and saw that the snake's fangs had only scratched my foot and most of the venom was in the sock. It was a close call, but not so close that I felt compelled to tell my parents … or to stop going to the river. The risk of another snakebite seemed minor compared to the fun that could be had only at the river. In a sense, this was a declaration of freedom.

Risk is necessary for freedom. Not freedom in a national sense, but the freedom to do things we like. Sometimes risk seems really stupid. For instance, the sport of base-jumping. Is the adrenaline high really worth that degree of danger? Having never done it, I can't say. The consequences should things go wrong are the price of risk. Rock climbers, spelunkers, motorcycle riders and others who accept risk must understand how what they do could affect themselves and others.

If you let your pet roam free and he bites someone the consequences are severe. It's a risk most people shouldn't take simply for the freedom they grant to their pets or the convenience of not having to attend to them. Likewise, a 12-year-old can't be expected to understand either danger or risk which is why many parents don't allow unsupervised play. These appear to be fair trade-offs.

On the other hand Americans seem to have become too risk adverse. Perhaps the lawyers with their ever-ready lawsuits, had something to do with it. Some of it, no doubt, is government driven, with rules and regulations. But most of it appears to be based on fear and fear is the greatest of all enemies of freedom.

Somehow, I can't help feeling that too much has been lost because of fear. Was the America of 30, 50 or 70 years ago really a more innocent place? I doubt it. Did the America of the “Our Gang” movies of the 1930s ever really exist? Maybe. Are small towns like Keystone (population 347) really as safe as we would like to believe? I think so. Would kids be better off if they spent more time outside? Absolutely! Is that risky thinking? Perhaps.

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