My border collie comedian
Ben was serious-minded. But when he decided that the job of the moment was finished and it was OK to play, he gave it all he had.
Ben, my border collie, had a sense of humor as broad as the sparkling white ruff around his neck. He knew that life's plan for everyone centers on joy, and for a border collie, the greatest joy is work: herding sheep, cattle, chickens, ducks, geese, or any other movable creature. And second best is play.
Even so, Ben was serious-minded. As a puppy, he sometimes watched his siblings play rough-and-tumble in our yard while he appeared to ponder whether they should be doing something more important. But when he decided that the job of the moment was finished and it was OK to play, he gave it all he had.
Actually, it was Margaret, Ben's mother, who taught her pups the art of having fun with people. Ben became especially proficient at Frisbee, one of Margaret's favorite games, and eventually his little sister Millie enjoyed it, too.
Margaret, Ben, and Millie each had their own person whom they accompanied for most of the day. Margaret went with my husband, Roy; Millie went with our son, Frank; and Ben went with me, but when we were all together in the evening, we celebrated with Frisbee.
Rivalry between the two young dogs became a problem. Fights over a Frisbee? Well, not for long. Margaret helped the young dogs work it out, and soon a pattern emerged. One of us would throw the Frisbee, and all three dogs pounded after it. At the critical point, mother and daughter peeled off to the side, and Ben leaped for the catch.
Frisbee in mouth, he spun on his haunches to keep it away from Millie, but only briefly. He'd let her grab it from him while Margaret barked happy approval, and they'd all come tearing back together, Ben proud of his catch, Millie proud of carrying the trophy, and Margaret proud of her pups.
Over the years, Ben's sense of humor generated some favorite tricks. Our chicken yard stood west of the house, and the birds required morning and evening chores: feeding and watering, gathering eggs, closing up for the night.
Ben always helped with these projects (especially encouraging the geese and ducks into the henhouse), and then he'd watch to see whether I'd return to the back door by walking around the front of the house or around the back. He'd dash the other way and stand waiting for me on the porch with his "Oh, there you are!" smile.
When I'd take a few moments for writing in my journal down by the creek, he'd paddle about in the water or wait patiently until he'd decided I should get back to work. Then he'd pick his stratagem for the day.
Either he'd come up behind me and give my elbow a powerful nudge, sending my pen in a gouging streak across the page, or with his fur waterlogged, he'd come straight for me, grinning, looking up under his border collie brows. It was get up and run, or be soaked when he got close enough to shake.
Mornings, after milking, we'd sometimes take the Jerseys across the creek and down the lane to the lower field for the day's grazing. Ben guided them onto the right path, took them to the wire gate, and then lay down behind them to wait for me to open it.
He'd push the cows through and, with a satisfied stance, head high and sniffing the wind, watch them fan out onto the meadow.
But the moment I hooked the loop over the gatepost, it was time to celebrate a job well done. He'd do a quick search for a proper stick, and then we'd play a combination game of toss-and-keep-away on the way home.
He developed his best game for the long walks we sometimes took for pleasure. As we set out, he'd lead the way, checking over his shoulder frequently to see which trail or turning I intended. But after a while, the tempting smells of nature led him in wider forays through the grass or pines or over a hill and out of sight.
He always came immediately when I called - well, except sometimes. I'd call. I'd stare in the direction I'd last seen him. I'd call again, my voice carrying overtones of worry. Maybe this time he really had lost track of me, or the coyotes were leading him away, as I'd seen them try to do with another of our dogs.
I'd shade my eyes, turning in all directions, my voice becoming harsh and commanding. "Ben, come! You come here this instant!"
Ben didn't let me suffer long. I'd feel that gentle nudge on the back of my knees and realize that a black shadow directly behind me kept turning as I turned, staying beyond the edge of my vision. I'd jerk around quickly to see laughing eyes, tongue lolling out of a huge grin, tail sweeping back and forth.
How had he managed to sneak back unseen? Or had he been there all along?
He loved my exasperated, "Oh, Ben!" He'd make a little jump of delight, his body an allover wriggle of pleasure, and we'd share a big hug.
Ben spaced out his jokes to catch me unaware and preoccupied as I studied range conditions or checked the Herefords, and I fell for his border collie sense of humor every time. But then, he knew I would.