Stories From Lock 27

It was a hot day for a bike ride, and I had gotten a later start than usual due to a phone call earlier in the morning. The plan was to ride from Sycamore Landing to the Monocacy Aqueduct. I did make it, and I set a decent pace in spite of the heat. I could literally feel the heat on my shoulders through the openings in the green canopy of the forest during the later parts of the ride. Surprisingly, I saw more people on the trail as it got closer to noon, when it was beginning to feel really hot.

I could have finished the ride earlier than I actually did, but was delayed by an encounter at Lock 27. An older gentleman seemed to be eager for conversation. I indulged him.

As I was riding by Lock 27, I slowed down to look at a small black dog running around on the other side of the lock. A gentleman who was on the towpath noticed me and informed me that the dog was a work dog. Having heard something recently about the difference between pets and work dogs (specifically those that help to corral animals in the fields and pastures), I asked him if the dog worked on a farm. That was an excuse for me to stop and get off the bike, and for him to extend the conversation. It extended more than I was expecting.

As he walked up to me, he mentioned that his dog was was a search and rescue dog. She was trained to find people trapped in rubble from structures that have collapsed. He went on to inform me that he had been working for FEMA for 40 years. His job was as a search and rescue specialist, a task which he performed with his trained partner dog. He mentioned the recent condominium collapse in Florida as an example of where his work could take him. (He later mentioned that he had been a part of the team responding to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.) He said that he was 75 years old. His dog was 7 years old, and her training started when she was 6 months old.

She was a small black dog. She seemed to be very mellow. She looked light on her feet, which is what is needed when she is walking on rubble that you do not want to collapse further. The dog was listening to everything that he was saying to it, and was responding to his instructions. He demonstrated this to me by asking her to go down into the bed of the lock to look around. This was a typical action that would be needed to go into destroyed buildings to try to rescue people. You might have noticed that I used the word “asking” rather than “ordering”. Yes, he actually talked to the dog using full sentences. It was quite clear that they are good friends. She was a very quiet dog. She responded every time he asked her something. She seemed to be happy.

He had had a stroke about a year ago. He is still recovering. He still had some physical issues to overcome (which I could also see), but he was hoping to go back into active service at FEMA. He lived on a farm near the aqueduct. He had his stroke when he was on his tractor working on the farm. He says that when the stroke happened he felt and knew what was coming. He stopped the tractor. Unfortunately, his mobile phone had died. When he got off his tractor, he fell and could not get up. There was nobody around other than his dog. He asked her to go to the neighbor’s farm to seek help. He said that the dog did not know the neighbor. The dog left and eventually came back with the neighbor, and he was able to get the help he needed. Apparently, the dog had appeared at the neighbor’s front door barking insistently, and succeeding in convincing her to open the door. When she opened the door, the dog would apparently try to convey what she wanted by running a short distance towards where he had fallen, and then coming back to the lady. She did this a few times. Apparently, her actions were enough to make the lady understand that the dog wanted her to follow her. And the dog led the lady to where he was lying in the field. The dog saved his life.

There were a few other directions that the conversation went off into once we got talking at Lock 27. He liked telling his life stories.

He had fought in the Vietnam war for 4 years. He had been a fighter pilot, flying F-100s. He named the five dogs that he has worked with at FEMA after military aircraft. His aircraft had been blown up out of the sky by anti-aircraft fire on two occasions. He mentioned how, all of a sudden, he had found himself in his ejector seat in the sky with no aircraft around him. He was fortunate to have been rescued on the ground after he had fallen behind enemy lines.

He says that he did not have ill-will for the Vietcong even in those days. (He differentiated between them and professional soldiers for some reason.) He mentioned that the Vietcong were usually young boys, 14 to 15 years old. They would come out to the base in the night with explosives to try to blow up the aircraft. The military had a process for confronting the kids, the last stage of which was to kill them if they did not respond to call-outs. He said that on several occasions he ended up taking the Kalashnikovs from the kids’ hands and sending them away without killing them. He was hoping to win them over. His approach was not popular with some of the other soldiers.

Without being asked, he admitted to having killed people. He sounded a little bit defensive when he said that. He said that he was following orders from his government. His job was not to question why. And finally, it became apparent to me that his current job at FEMA, trying to save lives, was partial atonement for some of what had happened during the war.

He asked me where I was from. He said that Indians were shady people. I was completely floored by his statement, especially because I, a person of Indian background, was the one having the conversation with him. Unfortunately, it turns out that his prior formative experiences with Indians have not been good. When he was in Vietnam, an Indian merchant tried to rip him off. There was a confrontation (with the use of all the threats available to military personnel being brought to bear) before the situation was resolved. The funny thing is that he seemed to be sympathetic to the circumstances of the person who had ripped him off and, in the end, ended up trying to help him. Most recently, he became a victim of a call-center scam where people from India remotely got control of his computer, locked it, and in the end got money off of him. I was trying to tell him that there are scammers everywhere in the world, and that we are not all like that. I did not do a good job. In any case, both he, and his dog, did not exhibit any suspicion of, or acrimony towards, me. In fact, they were downright friendly. The dog let me pet her and wagged her tail in delight when I scratched her neck. He said that dogs know whom to trust, and behave differently in the presence of different people. He also mentioned that although he cannot do it himself, it is possible to learn about people from their auras. He said that it was a skill that could be taught. I began to suspect that he might have Buddhist leanings.

When I mentioned my name and my background as a Christian from the State of Kerala, he sprung it on me that he was of the Mormon faith! I do not know why, but that caught me completely off-guard. But it did also make some sense. There is a big group of people who follow the Mormon faith in the area where we live, and he had actually grown up in Montgomery County. And I had learnt previously that the Mormons had fought in the past in wars for their country.

In the end, I had to stop asking questions lest I got him going off on yet another interesting topic or the other for an indefinite amount of time. I really had to get moving once again because I had not yet reached my intended destination at that point.

During the initial part of the ride I had been thinking about whether I would have anything interesting to blog about as a result of the ride. The only notable events so far in the ride had to do with birds that were not cooperating with me when I tried to take their pictures. They would seem settle down for the shot, but would fly away when I got off the bike and reached for my camera. I did not get even one picture of a bird! Fortunately, Bob and Raider came to the rescue!