A Memorial Day Salute: Our Military Working Dogs

Military working dogsIn honor of Memorial Day, I would like to pay tribute to some very special heroes— the U.S military working dogs. I am a sucker for a good dog story and this is the story of thousands of good dogs!

A Few Notable Combat Canines

General Custer
General Custer and his dog

Dogs in the military are nothing new. They have been around for a lot longer than even the holiday of Memorial Day! In the United States, military dogs date back to the Seminole Wars of 1855. And during the Civil War, American Pit Bull Terriers were used to send messages, to guard prisoners and also for companionship. Even General Custer took a companion dog to war with him. By WWI, the role of dogs in the military became more official. And by WWII, dogs were trained for active duty. They weren’t military afterthoughts, they were full-fledged soldiers!

Sergeant Stubby
Sergeant Stubby

Sergeant Stubby, a Pit Bull mix, was the most decorated combat dog of WWI. He was also the only dog to be promoted to sergeant through combat. Stubby served for eighteen months and participated in seventeen battles on the Western Front. He even discovered and captured a German spy!

WWII Dogs
Chips with his handlers

During WWII, the U.S. Marine Corps used dogs, which had been donated by their American owners, to recapture territory from Japanese occupying forces in the Pacific Theater. Chips, a German Shepherd mix was the most decorated dog of WWII. In one day, he attacked a small fort, received wounds to the head, forced the surrender of four Italian soldiers and later assisted in the capture of ten prisoners. He was awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart, although they were later revoked, due to an Army policy preventing official commendation of animals.

Military dogs
Cairo, the dog who took down Osama bin Laden

More recently, U.S. Navy SEALs used Cairo, a Belgian Malinois, in Operation Neptune Spear. You might know that operation better as “the one that took down Osama bin Laden.”

Gabe, Hero Dog of the Year
Gabe, Hero Dog of the Year

In 2012, the American Humane Association awarded Gabe, a specialized explosives search dog, the Hero Dog of the Year Award. Gabe is a yellow Labrador that was deployed in Iraq for thirteen months. During that time, he completed 210 combat missions, which resulted in twenty-six finds and an untold number of saved lives.

The individual stories could go on and on and each one is worthy of telling. Alas, there’s more ground to cover…so let’s talk about how military dogs are trained.

Dog School

Dog trainingSince 1958, Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas has been home to the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program, or MWD. This “Dog School” procures and trains dogs to assist military service personnel for each of the military branches in combat situations. The dogs must be both focused and aggressive. They must also demonstrate a desire to work and a heightened sense of smell.

This program is not for lap dogs, although they must have a desire to play! Detection training begins by searching for toys. Dogs are evaluated on how hard they will work to find a hidden toy and how hard they will bite the toy when they find it. In a combat zone, you want a dog that is not going to grow tired of searching for explosives!

Training

Dog School currently has sixty-two training areas for more than one thousand dogs. The training staff consists of around 125 security forces airmen and previous handlers from each branch of the military.

Approximately eighty-five percent of MWDs are purchased from Germany and the Netherlands. Those countries have military dog breeding programs that are hundreds of years old. Most of the remaining fifteen percent of military dogs are bred at Lackland’s training facility.

Dishonorably Discharged

All military careers eventually come to an end. Sometimes a dog’s career ends due to age or health problems. Sometimes the dog has simply lost the oomph for the job and wants to chill out and lick its private parts. I was shocked to learn that, prior to the year 2000, most Military Working Dogs were euthanized at the end of their military service. Retired dogs were seen as “surplus equipment,” and were treated as such. Yowza! That blows my mind!

Robby's Law
Robby and handler

When the time came for Robby, a military working dog, to be retired, his handler fought desperately to be able to adopt him. While the handler’s request was denied, Robby’s death had an impact on the fate of thousands of other MWDs. In November 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Robby’s Law, which requires that all MWDs suitable for adoption be given the opportunity to be adopted by law enforcement agencies, former handlers or other persons “capable of humanely caring for these dogs.”

Adopt a Retired Military Working Dog

Military programSince these dogs have been highly trained for unsavory tasks, they are often unsuitable to be family pets. Due to their unique training and temperaments, MWDs are never simply surrendered to shelters or animal rescue organizations. Each Military Working Dog adoption is handled through the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Adoption Program at Lackland Air Force Base. Military personnel carefully evaluate dogs and an estimated three hundred dogs are adopted each year.

For dogs that are still capable of working, adoption priority is given to law enforcement agencies and retirement is postponed in favor of a career change. For dogs that are no longer up for a career, former handlers are given an opportunity to adopt. Following that, the general public can apply to adopt. Adoption of these military heroes is always free of charge.

Save a Vet

If you are interested in providing a home for one of these dogs, you may get adoption information here, at Save-A-Vet. Keep in mind that most retired MWDs are not placed in homes with small children or other pets. Due to the popularity of these canine national heroes, there is a waiting list for people interested in adopting one.

Dog lovers living within two hours of Lackland Air Force Base can also consider serving as a foster home for the MWD Breeding Program. Fostering entails raising a puppy from twelve weeks to six months of age, at which point the pups are ready to enter their military training program.

Monument Dogs

In October 2013, the U.S. military dedicated its first national monument to combat dogs. Located at Lackland Air Force, the nine-foot tall bronze statue features a handler and four noble dogs. It is inscribed with the words, “Guardians of America’s Freedom.” The statue features the four major breeds that have been used since World War II: German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever, Doberman Pinscher and Belgian Malinois.

Monument Dogs

The monument, which was built entirely through private donations, is the brainchild of John Burnam, who served as a dog handler during the Vietnam War. Burnam had the idea for a memorial when the U.S. combat dogs during Vietnam were not allowed to return to the United States. Burnam is the author of two books about combat dogs, including, Canine Warrior: How a Vietnam Scout Dog Inspired a National Monument.

Freedom is Never Free

Blog13At any given time, approximately 500 military working dogs are deployed. The vast majority will never make the evening news and they ask for no more than a pat on the head for a job well done. So, for that, they deserve our thanks, on this Memorial Day, and every day.

Let’s honor them today by watching this moving video, of combat dogs and their handlers in action!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

The Fire Horse in America: Blazing a Trail

orking Horse in AmericaIt’s an unfortunate fact that at the turn of the century, when the general public traded horses in for mechanical horsepower, a lot of people stopped appreciating horses. As a horse lover myself, I don’t think that horses get the amount of press they deserve and it pains me when people forget about the vital roles horses have played in our nation’s history. That’s why I’m devoting today’s post to a group of my favorite horses from history—the fire horses.

Blazing a Trail

New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Company In 1832, the New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Company purchased what is believed to have been the first fire horse. If you’re thinking that the firefighters were thrilled with the addition to their fire department precinct, you are wrong. At the time, it was thought that horses had no place in a fire station.

It boggles my mind that it took almost thirty more years for someone to say, “Hey! Why don’t we save our backs and have horses pull our fire wagons?” Seriously, it makes me question man’s ingenuity! Prior to the Civil War, the task of pulling fire wagons and equipment was considered a job for man rather than beast. But, better late than never, I suppose. By the 1860s, fire horses were a regular sight in cities. Fire horses had their “hay day” from the 1860s to the 1820s.

Horse Power

New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Company Of course, not every horse was up to the task. Veterinarians carefully evaluated the animals. Stallions and mares alike could serve as fire horses. Like other service animals, fire horses had to possess the right temperament, as well as strong physical capabilities. They needed to be obedient and fearless. They had to be calm in situations that would send most animals running. And, of course they had to be fast!

Training was intense and the cost wasn’t cheap. A single fire horse could cost as much as the annual salaries for ten firemen. That was fair, it seems to me, since a single fire horse could pull more weight than ten firemen. Training could take up to two years and an average fire horse could be on the job from four to ten years.

Detroit Horse CollegeSome cities offered on-the-job training, while others had training stables. Detroit even had its very own horse college. Each horse college graduate was guaranteed placement in one of the city’s fire stations. (If only all colleges could offer job placement for human graduates!) Cities acquired horse ambulances and horseshoeing wagons to care for the needs of their fire horses.

Detroit had weight requirements to match horses with their tasks. A lightweight horse would weigh in at 1,100 pounds and would pull a hose wagon. A middleweight horse weighed in at 1,400 pounds and pulled steam engine wagons. And, the heavyweights weighed in the neighborhood of 1,700 pounds and were responsible for pulling the hook and ladder wagons.

Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire Horses

Fire HorsesIn the early days of the fire horse era, the horses were stabled near the station. It didn’t take long to realize that firefighters were wasting valuable time fetching the horses and getting them harnessed. Horses were moved to the stations, where they were stalled near the wagons. A quick hitch was developed in 1871, which allowed for a faster response time. And, in 1873, a hanging harness with the quick-locking “Hames Collar” was designed by a Massachusetts firefighter, Charles E. Berry. The invention was such a hit that Berry left the fire department and sold his Berry Hames Collars across the country. New innovations allowed firefighters to hitch the horses to the wagons in as little as thirty seconds!

Keep the Home Fires from Burning

During the era of the fire horse, cities were largely constructed from wood, so it didn’t take more than a spark and windy day to ignite an entire town. The fire horse proved its worth, and at least once, an insufficient number of fire horses proved to be disastrous.

Boston influenzaDuring the equine influenza outbreak of 1872, fire became a major concern. In Boston alone, four out of 75 fire horses had died. Twenty-two others weren’t fit for duty. The city reverted back to using human volunteers to drag the heavy equipment to fires. On November 9, 1872, the Great Boston Fire broke out. It burned for sixteen hours—covering 65 acres and consuming 776 buildings. Twenty thousand people were left without jobs and 1,000 people became homeless. The fire is estimated to have claimed between thirteen and twenty lives. One hundred years after the Great Boston Fire, a Boston fire chief, John P. Vahey, renamed the disaster, “The Epizootic Fire,” in a book by the same name. Vahey made a logical argument that the severity of the fire was owing to the lack of healthy fire horses.

Not Your Usual Dog and Pony Show

DalmationsWhile people might not be aware of the history of fire horses, any three-year-old can tell you that Dalmatian dogs and fire trucks go together. You might be interested to learn that the status of the Dalmatian as an unofficial firefighter’s mascot dates back to the days of the fire horses. Horses often had to spend hours at the scene of a fire. There were also long hours spent waiting for a call. It was common for a Dalmatian to be brought in to each station to serve as calming companions for the high-spirited steeds—effectively serving as the horses’ pet! The Dalmatians also guarded the equipment and horses at fire scenes. Just think. Without the fire horses, the Dalmatian would never have been associated with fire stations!

Fight Fire with Fire Horses

Fire horsesEven the best of the fire horses couldn’t keep up the pace indefinitely. When the time came for a horse to retire, they were sometimes reassigned to less strenuous city positions. Sometimes they found new careers pulling wagons for junk peddlers and deliverymen. Reassignment could prove challenging. While the horses had no difficulty learning new tasks, they didn’t forget their former careers. Upon hearing a fire bell, a retired horse would often be seen running down the streets hauling a wagon!

Fire engineThe modern mechanically-driven fire engine meant the end of an era. It is said that in some cities, children cried in the streets as they said good-bye to the horses that had been such a part of their cities landscapes. I’m not ashamed to admit that, had I been alive, I would have joined them! Horsepower has its place, but let us never forget the horses that came first.

Here’s an interesting video with documentary footage of fire horses ca. 1910!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

Weird Festivals: ROAD TRIP!!!

Route 66Do you like road trips and crazy local festivals as much as I do? Sometimes I just want to jump in my car and start driving while doing my best impersonation of Dinah Shore singing, “See the USA in Your Chevrolet!” It isn’t always possible for me to hit the open road, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dream, right? That’s why we’re going to talk about some of my dream road trips to some of the greatest (and strangest) festivals this country has to offer. So grab a map, and settle in with a tall glass of iced tea because we are going on a (virtual) road trip. Come on…I’ll let you ride shotgun. ROAD TRIP!!!!

Hamburg Armadillo Festival

Armadillo FestivalHamburg, Arkansas is home to the world famous Armadillo Festival! I know that because their website told me so. The 44th annual Armadillo Festival was held during the first weekend in May. Festival activities included street dancing, a crawfish boil, 5k race, carnival rides and food galore, plus lawnmower drag racing! And, of course, there was the always-exciting armadillo race!

Here’s a bit of Western trivia for ya: Hamburg, Arkansas was the childhood home of Charles Portis, the author of True Grit.

Mike the Headless Chicken Festival

Headless ChickenAs proof that people will use any excuse to hold a festival, I present exhibit A: the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival. The festival is held the second weekend in May in Fruita, Colorado. For those of you who remain blissfully unaware, Mike “The Headless Wonder Chicken” survived for eighteen months without the benefit of his head. It was during the 1940s and Mike became a sideshow curiosity—one of the more curious curiosities, I must say.

Today, the people of Fruita celebrate “the amazing story of one chicken’s will to live.” The festival includes live music, a car show, a 5k run, a chicken wing eating contest, a marshmallow Peep eating contest, and vendor booths.

Hatfield & McCoy Reunion Festival

Hatfield & McCoyWho doesn’t like a family reunion? Well, a lot of people, come to think of it . . . but this reunion is different. The Hatfield & McCoy Reunion Festival in Williamson, West Virginia is more about fun than feuding.

The festival celebrates the famed Hatfield and McCoy Feud. There’s entertainment, live music, food and a marathon. Plus, you can take a 3-hour tour of some of the better-known historic sites of the actual events!

Watermelon Thump

The Luling Watermelon Thump 2012We might have missed out on this year’s Armadillo Festival, but we can still make it to Luling, Texas in time for the Watermelon Thump, the last weekend in June. The Watermelon Thump festivities include an award for the largest Black Diamond watermelon. The top contest contenders are sold at auction, and have brought as much as $22,500. Portions of the auction proceeds support local student scholarships.

Three separate watermelon seed spitting contests are held during the event. Categories are: children, adults and teams. It’s not surprising that the current Guiness Book of World Records watermelon seed spitter is from Luling! In 1989, Lee Wheelis spat a seed a whopping 68 feet 9 and 1/8 inches!

Gilroy Garlic Festival

Garlic Ice CreamVampires beware! The Gilroy, California Garlic Festival is held the final weekend of July. This is one of the world’s largest food festivals. Come celebrate the stinking rose of Gilroy! It’s a breath of fresh, or not so fresh, air.

There will be cooking contests, a children’s zone, live music, arts and crafts booths, and the Miss Gilroy Garlic Pageant. And don’t forget to bring an appetite for all things garlic. Gourmet alley features everything from calamari to garlic fries to garlic ice cream! (Don’t worry. Everyone else will be eating garlic, too.)

Hollerin’ Heritage Festival

Hollerin’ Heritage FestivalThe National Hollerin’ Contest has been held in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina since 1969, but in 2013, joined forces with the Hollerin’ Heritage Festival to form one great big hollerin’ deal! The festival is held on the second Saturday of September on the property belonging to the Spivey’s Corner Volunteer Fire Department. All proceeds from the Hollerin’ Contest benefit the fire department.

The festival features a car show, an antique farm equipment exhibit, a kid zone, live music, vendors and a barbecue cook-off. But, of course, the big draw in the Hollerin’ Contest!

Before the invention of the telephone, hollerin’ was a vital form of long-distance communication. The good people of Spivey’s Corner are keeping that tradition alive. In past years, contestants from the contest have appeared on “The Tonight Show” and the “Late Show with David Letterman”.

Road Kill Cook-Off

Roadside RemnantsThe Appalachian town of Marlinton, West Virginia is home to the Road Kill Cook-Off and Autumn Harvest Festival. This event, which takes place in September, has been featured on the Food Network, the Travel Channel and the Discovery Channel.

All entries must have, as their main ingredient, any animal commonly found dead on the side of the road. It seems to me they could do a little marketing crossover with the Armadillo Festival. Cooks must sign a statement certifying that their product is at least 20% wild game.

I’m having images of Grandpa Jones on “Hee Haw,” and the bit, “Hey, Grandpa! What’s for supper?” Well, if you go to the Road Kill Cook-Off, supper might consist of squirrel gravy over biscuits or marinated bear meat. Mmm, Mmm good!

Fire Ant Festival

Fire Ant FestivalIf you can’t beat them, throw a festival for them! That’s the philosophy behind the Fire Ant Festival in the East Texas town of Marshall. The Fire Ant Festival is always held during the second full weekend in October.

This family festival includes the Fire Ant 5k run, the Tour de Fire Ant bicycle race, a parade and vendors. Oh, and since Marshall is the birthplace of Boogie Woogie, you should expect plenty of exceptional music and dancing in the streets!

Honey, We’re Home!

Honey, We're HomeI hope you’ve enjoyed our virtual road trip as much as I have. Oh, what the heck. I think we have time for one more chorus. Sing with me now!

See the USA in your Chevrolet

America is asking you to call

Drive your Chevrolet through the USA

America’s the greatest land of all!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

Whatever Happened to Baby McDonald?

Baby McDonaldHave you ever seen the 1962 Bette Davis and Joan Crawford film, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s one of my all-time favorites. The movie begins with a 6-year-old Baby Jane Hudson wowing audiences on the vaudeville stage and it descends into some of the most tragic images ever seen in any psychological thriller. It also happens to include one of my favorite movie lines EVAH, “But ya ahh Blanche. Ya ahh in that chair!” Trust me; I get goose bumps every time I hear Bette Davis say those words.

Baby Jane HudsonOnce again, I can hear you wondering if you have stumbled upon the wrong blog. No, you haven’t. I realize that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane isn’t remotely Western. But, it has prompted me to investigate the life of another famous vaudevillian “Baby” . . . Baby McDonald. So gather ‘round the campfire and get ready for the Old West adventure story I like to think of as, “Whatever Happened to Baby McDonald?”

Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner!

Baby McDonaldBaby McDonald was born in England in 1868. The name on the birth certificate said, “Mary McDonald,” but Baby was the name that would catapult her to stardom in mining towns across the West. The McDonald family came to America in 1873, as part of Fattie Stewart’s vaudeville troupe from England. (I did a little background check because you can’t be too careful of a man who called himself, “Fattie,” but it seems like he was on the up and up.)

Perhaps Baby was born to be in the spotlight, or perhaps she didn’t have any choice in the matter. Her father, James, was a professional clog dancer. Apparently, it was much easier to earn a living as a clog dancer in the 19th century than it is today. James had so much success as a performer that Baby was brought into the family business. It is said that she began her performing career in Western mining towns at the age of three, but she would have been five or six by the time her family came to the U.S. But anyway, point is that she was just a little tyke and they were already shaving years off her age!

Vaudeville showBaby was one of the first child stars. She took the stage in Philadelphia and New York City, and belted out songs that drove the crowds wild. Billed as an “infant prodigy,” she traveled the country, headlining over lesser acts. Like a precursor to Shirley Temple, Baby donned costumes and curls while singing and dancing her little heart out. And, because Netflix didn’t exist yet, the people flocked to see her. Crowds in Louisiana, Texas, California and the Dakota Territory couldn’t get enough of Baby. Baby remained a little wisp of a thing and her advertised age always remained a few years younger than she actually was.

Million Dollar Baby

In 1879, the McDonald family made a speedy exit from their home base of Cleveland. James McDonald had stabbed a man named John Shay, manager of the Opera House in which they were performing at the time. Baby’s daddy was arrested and went to trial, but was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.  But that didn’t make him a local hero, for sure, so the family left town in a hurry.

By 1880, the McDonalds were living in a Denver boarding house with other showbiz folks. For once, Baby’s age was correctly listed on a document, a U.S Census report, at twelve years of age. Records also indicate that she was enrolled in a local school, for what might have been the only formal education she ever received.

Theater Comique, Leadville  CO, ca. 1880The call of the road was too strong for the McDonald family to ignore, however, and by 1881 they were living in Leadville, Colorado. Leadville was a booming city in the later part of the 1800s, with a population of more than 40,000, and one of the world’s largest silver camps, so there was no shortage of paying customers to admire Baby!

Leadville was a little rough around the edges, however. After Oscar Wilde lectured in Leadville in 1882, he told the story of a visit to a local saloon, where said he saw, “the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was a printed notice—‘Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.’”

But Baby McDonald didn’t need a sign to keep the audiences in check. In A History of Leadville Theater: Opera Houses, Variety Acts and Burlesque Shows, author Gretchen Scanlon writes that Baby, “lit up the stage with each performance, not only at the Chestnut Street Theatre but also later at Grand Central, McDaniel’s, Ben Loeb’s and Mike Goldsmith’s Theaters. No matter which stage she was on, she was one of Leadville’s most popular hits.”

Baby Come Back

Marriage certificateAt the tender age of thirteen, Baby decided to marry. On a Sunday afternoon, Baby and a man named A.E. Lewis ran off and got hitched. Baby’s parents were less than pleased and began searching for their new son-in-law. Lewis, fearing that they would take Baby, had locked her in his house for safekeeping.

Proving that hell hath no fury like a mother who encounters the grown man who ran off and married her thirteen-year-old daughter, Mrs. McDonald tracked down Lewis and had a few words with him. She didn’t need more than a few words to get her point across (though the loaded shotgun poking him in the face may have helped in that matter.) She simply said, “Baby or brains?”

Lewis weighed his options and he wisely decided to keep his brains and allow Baby to return home with her parents. Lewis was charged with assault and battery for locking Baby away and the two were divorced. Lewis, however, fancied himself as Baby’s liberator, pointing out that her family mistreated her. He also maintained that Baby was over nineteen. He was wrong on that point, but goodness knows the McDonald’s didn’t make it easy to keep up with Baby’s real age.

Baby Bride, Parts II and III

William H. West's Minstrel ShowIn 1884, Baby eloped again. This time she was seventeen or eighteen and the groom was a miner, by the name of Alexander Martin. Mrs. McDonald again tried having a discussion involving a shotgun, but she wasn’t as successful as in her previous negotiations. The marriage lasted until the couple had a fight in the winter of 1885 and Baby walked thirteen miles in a snowstorm to return home to Mama. The couple divorced and Baby return to the stage.

She soon married a New York merchant, but continued performing. The new act lasted longer than the new marriage. By the late 1880s, Baby was appearing under the name Polly McDonald.

Crybaby

Me and Jack1891 found “Polly” starring in the burlesque, “Me and Jack.” In 1892, while doing a road show of “Me and Jack,” Polly was staying at the City Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island. Unable to sleep, she decided to read by the gaslight. When the match landed under her dress, she was engulfed in flames. The woman formerly known as “Baby,” died five hours later in a local hospital.

Just like the fictional life of Baby Jane Hudson, Baby McDonald’s life began with promise and ended in tragedy. And that, my friends, is what happened to Baby McDonald.

Here’s a little video you’ll enjoy, with documentary footage of vaudeville acts from the late 19th century!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia