When we begin an evening at a fine French restaurant, we don’t expect it to end standing in a hot shower with all our clothes on.
Late last year we had ventured out for a delightful dinner at Raleigh’s Jolie Restaurant with our friends David and Susan. Vaccinated, boosted, and feeling increasingly comfortable with indoor dining, this was one of our first breakout treats of the year. The meal was wonderful but the memory of what we ate and what we drank was wiped away by what followed.
Upon arrival home, we let the dogs out and began preparations to all sit down and watch the next installment of Ted Lasso. In addition to “Massimo” (il Magnifico), our 3-yr-old white hound mix, we were keeping my daughter’s dog “Bear” for the night. Bear is a black Plott Hound rescue. Actually, the state dog of North Carolina, AKC says the Plott Hound is “the only registered coonhound that does not trace its ancestry to foxhounds. The ancestors of the Plott Hound were used for boar hunting in Germany and introduced to the US for larger game.”
Bear has never seen a boar or larger game for that matter. Squirrels, racoons, chipmunks, and random cousin rodents are his favorites. He is single minded when it comes to tracking a scent. When he catches the bouquet of a critter, he is off and running, totally oblivious to the human voice. There is not a barrier that will stop him, and he will go over, under, around, or through anything to continue the chase. Think wide, black freight train and you’ve got the picture.
After an appropriate interval, I opened the back door and called for “the boys” to come in. I immediately saw Massimo on the back patio, but he was circling and seemed nervous. No sign of Bear. I stepped outside and called his name but only heard his distinctive howl from what seemed to be very far away. I walked to the back of the house. I could hear him but couldn’t see him. Hayden was inside and narrowed the sound of his mournful cries to a spot under the far back corner of the house, seemingly in the crawl space.
David and Susan now joined the search and as we circled the house, we converged on the air vents just under the spot that Hayden had identified. I used my iPhone flashlight to look through the old rusted vents but could see nothing. The night was black, the space was black, and Bear is black.
He barked once and then went silent, adding to our concern. He was clearly scared and somehow trapped.
While I knew there was crawl space on that back corner of the house, there was no access from ground level to my knowledge.
When we retraced our steps, Susan noticed that some lattice work sealing the little back porch off our master bedroom had been disturbed at ground level. Something had dug at the corner and presumably used its snout to pry its way into the space. When Susan and I pulled back the lattice work, I realized that there was a 3-foot square opening into the crawl space on the foundation wall of the house. I called for Bear and again, just one muffled bark emanated from the darkness 45 feet away. I called again. Silence and no movement.
Some months before, we had a Raleigh company replace the insulation under the house and encapsulate most of the crawl space with a moisture barrier. As I peered into this 45- by 30-foot space, I remembered with trepidation that all three firms that bid on the job told me the same thing. They “didn’t have anyone small enough to go into that space and with the exposed nails, ducting, and hanging wires, it would be too dangerous to include in the work.”
Ok, so let’s recap. Bear we know is in that back corner of the crawl space and for some reason will not come out and had gone silent. A newly retrieved flashlight did not pick up him or the reflection of his eyes, so I assumed there was something between us and the dog. Hayden called Animal Control and was told that if it was a wild animal, they would respond but would not come to the aid of a dog or cat. At this point we had taken off the lattice and were crouched down looking into the small access hole and the darkness beyond.
I then pictured the scene where I would tell my daughter Brittany, who loved this dog with all her heart, “well the good news is that we know where your dog is, the bad news is, well...the bad news”.
Realizing that I’d do damned near anything to avoid that conversation, in I went. Feet first, I squeezed my 6 ft. 195 lb. body through the hole and into the darkness. As I pulled my back over the threshold with the heels of my dress shoes (no time to change) and used my hands to pull against the frame to make my first move, several things went through my mind.
1. Was the critter that Bear had chased under the house STILL under the house?
2. What was the critter?
3. Was the critter as scared as I was? And finally, with what the contractors had said about danger:
4. was this a round trip journey upon which I had just embarked.
Once I was inside the musty darkness the only way I could traverse the space was by pulling myself along with my heels. The cobwebs, nails, pipes, and ductwork were inches from my face as I scooted through the dust and the clay. Occasionally a pipe would be close enough and sturdy enough to allow me to use my hands and arms to pull myself a foot or so versus the inches of my progress just using my heels.
I was calling and talking to Bear and assuring Hayden whose voice I could hear behind me as I slowly made progress toward my destination. Once I started on the journey, I was no longer worried about critters, but focused on not getting caught on one of the dangling hazards.
After what seemed like a long time (probably just minutes) the flashlight that I scooted beside me illuminated a good deal of old insulation that had fallen and was the obstacle that was blocking my view of Bear. It was also the reason he couldn’t come when we called him. You see Bear had gotten wrapped up in the old insulation and was pretty much frozen with fear.
When I slowly closed in on the pile of insulation, I was able to move it with my feet and outstretched legs. As soon as I did, Bear escaped and started crawling toward me. He was scared by the beam of the flashlight, so I used it to illuminate his way while trying to avoid shining it directly into his eyes.
When the dog got close enough, I grabbed his collar and started digging my heels into the dirt to push myself backwards toward the opening. At one point I bridged my neck to look back and realized we weren’t going in a straight line and needed to adjust course. After ten or fifteen pushes and now one-handed pulls under the pipes and ductwork, I was close enough to the opening to let go of Bear’s collar, assuming he would run to the sound of voices encouraging us from the backyard.
Wrong. Either still on the scent of the critter, confused, or just curious as to what the rest of the crawl space looks like, he headed in the wrong direction, disappearing around another corner under our master bath. I pushed one more time toward the opening and shouted at Bear with a volume, tone, and purpose that he probably had never heard from man nor beast. Back around the corner he waddled, scooted past me, and jumped out through the opening. Cheers went up from Hayden, David, and Susan. It reminded me of the scene in How Green Was My Valley when the mine worker families are waiting for the lift to emerge from the caved-in coal pit.
Now to get me out. I found that the 6-inch shelf between the bottom of the opening and the ground was much easier to clear going feet first that it was coming headfirst on my return. But after a couple attempts, I kicked and pulled my body back through the hole in the wall, extracted my feet, and crawled through the bushes to safety. My relief was epic, only slightly dimmed by a pretty good nail cut on my left forearm, a scraped head, and an injured sternum suffered in my final push.
Hayden was happy to see me again, as were David and Susan. Bear seemed grateful, though not nearly grateful enough in my opinion. Massimo, confined to the house during the entire ordeal continued to fill the night with impatient barking.
My clothes (I was still dressed for dinner) looked like I had been sleeping under a bridge for a month or two. So, using the easy access up the back steps to our master bedroom, I walked in, removed my shoes, socks, belt, and watch and walked into the shower for a long, hot, cleansing of my clothes and myself.
I still love you Bear. You showed me once again that when we begin our day, we are not sure how it will end. Life is funny that way.
Final note: Early the next day, I secured that lattice work in a way that only a demolitions expert could move.
Photo by John Kitto