Mention the name, "Maritimes," anywhere in the world and more than likely
an image of a rocky, rugged coastline springs to mind. Anglo-Saxon heritage
names are everywhere, first expressed by the provinces of Prince Edward
Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, and finally in towns like St.
George and Moncton. Traditionally,
they style themselves as retreats from the stresses of modern day life,
yet they are in the vanguard of the telecommunications and technological
juggernaut leading us into this 21st century. These days, New Brunswick
is the "wired province", which also happens to cater to thousands upon
thousands of visitors during the languid, picaresque days of summer.
I am a native of New Brunswick, though I, too, like so many others, traveled down the road apiece to Ontario, where I have lived for 26 years. Not too long ago, I visited the house in Moncton where my first childhood memories were forged, where I first attended school, and where the lives of my family (my mother Diana, my sister Lorraine, and my younger brother Bryan) were irrevocably changed one summer evening in June 1957.
I was six years old when my father's accident happened. A passenger in the rear seat of a car traveling along the main highway, Dad was thrown back and forth inside the car as shattered glass ripped at his eyes. Six months later, after extensive plastic surgery, and after the largest legal settlement in New Brunswick history (wherein lawyers took more than half of the proceeds), he had one glass eye and very little reason for optimism about regaining any sight whatsoever in the remaining one.
We moved to St. Stephen, a small town of some three thousand inhabitants at the time, straddling the St. Croix River and sharing its pulp mill effluence with Calais, Maine. My mother and father had first lived there when they were married and they hoped that the cost of living would be less as they were now on a fixed income.
St. Stephen is a busy border town in the summer months and I recall warning the occupants of cars with license plates from Texas, Florida, and the ilk that although it was 90 degrees in town, an hour north in Fredericton there had been a terrible snowstorm and they were best advised to purchase winter coats and skis. It was a joke we repeated often, sometimes to great and hilarious effect.
My sister, Lorraine, and I know the streets of St. Stephen well. I can walk them in my mind to this very day as I imagine that she can. That we can do this is testament to the numerous excursions we made with our blind father almost every evening after supper. I walked with Dad on my right arm down King Street, right on Water Street, along to the corner where Buchanan Brothers' furniture store stood, up the high hill to Union Street, a quick right and then a left onto Marks Street, past the high school, and then a right onto Queen Street and toward home again. For variety, we would tackle the hill which led to Milltown, turn right, and find ourselves skirting the perimeter of town before we plunged back into more familiar streets.
As we walked, we talked. My job was to describe what I was seeing: whose store was still open, who had said 'hello' to us as we passed on the sidewalk, whose car had sped through the puddle and splashed us. We talked about my father's experiences in the war, and how he met Diana, my mother, near Whitehall in London, and how he persuaded my grandmother (with a trunk of non-perishable foods that he had sent from Canada and which ordinary Brits hadn't seen in years because of rationing) to let him marry her daughter and take her to Canada in 1946. We talked and I learned much of my father's philosophy of life for, if anything, he was a creative, imaginative man whose blindness provided enormous frustration, but whose optimism for life seemed boundless. Also see Garnet Boyd's six-part series entitled "Boyd's Eye View," written for the St. Croix Courier.
My father was something of an iconoclast in that he did not lie down in the face of a problem; rather, he tackled it head on and, if the problem did not remove itself, would devise a plan to eliminate it. As I entered my teens, it was clear that Dad recognized that his walking companion was developing other interests and he set about discovering more about dogs that could be trained to work with the blind. He called them "Seeing Eye Dogs" and identified Morristown, New Jersey as their home. As was his nature, Dad pursued every detail about these dogs and decided that his independence of movement could be entrusted to one of them. We had little idea of what it would mean, but he was gone for one month and when he returned, Peyton, a Seeing Eye guide dog, was in tow.
Peyton was a German Shepherd, small for his size, and a little skittish when he arrived. As children, we quickly divided his responsibilities into two areas: he worked with Dad, and he played with us. There was, we learned, no question where his loyalties were...when Dad moved, he moved. If he scratched an eyebrow, Peyton was instantly attentive. When he was in harness, he was working.
Through the early months, as Dad and Peyton ventured into town, I walked behind them, ensuring that he stopped at traffic lights and that Dad knew where he was. I learned the term, "phooey," which was used to correct Peyton and "heel," which kept his pace in close adjustment to my father's walking speed. I watched him being scolded for taking my father into low-lying branches of trees and praised for stopping abruptly when an ignorant driver made a turn in front of them without the right-of-way.
At home, Peyton's tricolor coat was brushed regularly, he had Dr. Ballard's every evening, and he slept with one eye open to keep watch on my father. Although he wasn't supposed to be a family pet, it was impossible for him to be otherwise. By nature, he was gentle, happy-go-lucky, and playful. As the years passed and he and my father became an inseparable team, well known throughout the town, it became clear that an educative process was taking place. The people in St. Stephen looked out for Peyton, didn't bother him when he was on duty, and kept their own dogs out of the way.
As is always the case, however, there were obstructions and my father didn't hesitate in pushing them aside. Involved in local and provincial politics, he crafted and sponsored the first legislation in the Maritimes for the use of guide dogs for the blind, making it illegal to bar them from restaurants, taxis, buses or any public places. Of all the political change in which my father was involved, from crafting constitutions to advising premiers, nothing gave him more satisfaction than being able to go into the restaurant where he had once been denied entry because of Peyton and sitting down to enjoy a glass of buttermilk while his dog ate a biscuit.
Until the day that Peyton retired, I'd never heard the term used for a dog. When we learned that it meant that he would be going back to Morristown to live out his last years, we wept. But the standards for guide dogs are strict...they are responsible for their master's life and safety and the decision that Peyton's working life was over was irrevocable. His own eyesight had become too poor to lead Dad.
Once again, my father flew to Morristown, leaving us with Peyton while he worked with a new dog. His hopes of keeping Peyton, while Ava became his working dog, rapidly diminished. On his return, both dogs were at home with us and I will never forget watching Peyton place his chin into my father's hand, an act of devotion that encapsulated all that they had done together as a team. Ava wore the harness and Peyton didn't understand why, leading to a rivalry that could only be mitigated by Peyton's removal back to Seeing Eye. Peyton went out of our lives, back to Morristown where, we knew, he died of a broken heart. Seeing Eye, knowing well the bond between dog and master, notified my father regularly over the course of a year with details of Peyton's retirement life and, one day, of his passing.
Ava, a German Shepherd, was smaller than Peyton and with darker fur, tending almost to jet black. She was happy-go-lucky, attentive and, to us, never quite reached the level of adoration that we kept for Peyton. But she was good, very good, and she went through the period of adjustment as a quick study, enjoying the walks and learning my father's habits and patterns. Living with a guide dog had become almost routine, nothing special really, for the norm always becomes what you are used to regardless of its uniqueness to others. Ava's time with us seemed to pass even faster than Peyton's but, of course, we were finishing high school, moving on to university, and carrying on with our own lives. When Dad told us that Ava had to retire and that he was on his way to Morristown for his third Shepherd, it was hard to believe.
Watson, a German Shepherd almost twice the size of Ava, was almost too much for my father to handle. The adjustment was uncertain for several months as Watson's strength and energy seemed boundless and he was often difficult to keep in check. My father's health was failing at the same time and there were periods when an evening walk was sacrificed for a more quiet time at home. When my father passed away, Watson became a vivid reminder as he padded ceaselessly up and down the stairs that his master was gone. Shortly after the funeral, my brother-in-law and I drove Watson to the airport and he was returned to Seeing Eye where, it was believed, he could be retrained to a new owner. We never learned if this did happen.
Three dogs - Peyton, Ava, and Watson - all German Shepherds, all entrusted with the same noble case...to serve and protect. To bring freedom to my father by giving him the precious gift of independence through mobility.
These days, in Oakville, where I live, I often see guide dogs with their trainers or new masters working along the sidewalks as part of the Lions' Club guide dog center. I watch the dogs carefully, noting and judging them with knowledge learned long ago but not forgotten. I watch the trainers walking behind, aware that they will fail any dog that does not or cannot make the grade. I see blind men and women, harness gripped in hand, making that leap of faith and trusting their dogs to guide them safely through the intersection of a busy city. I make that leap of faith with them. For my father and for me.