This story of Bruce is reproduced in "Our Family Farm" stories From Bruce and Grey counties published by Brucedale Press.
It story of a dog named Bruce whose importance in the lives of the Helfenstein children, Suzanne, Robert and David back in the 1970s reflected the role all farm dogs on Canadian farms.
From a Christmas present for their Dad until twins Rob and Suzanne leave their home on the farm as they begin their post secondary education and David becomes his dad's righthand man, Bruce's fame spreads. And when Bruce was close to death one early March day, the three children watched their dad, the hero, save Bruce.
The story of Bruce is now a favourite bedtime story for the Helfenstein grandchildren.
Let’s get the cows!
That’s all Bruce needed to hear and out the laneway to the back pasture field he'd race, knowing he had a limited amount of time to enjoy sniffing out mice and moles in the fence rows before his work began. He kept his eyes and ears on Harry. Bruce was my husband's beloved Australian shepherd.
“OK Bruce. Get the cows!”
By now man and dog were together at the entrance to the pasture field of our two-hundred acre farm, Bellefarm Holsteins.
Bruce responded and Harry needed only to wait. Like a bullet released by the pull of a trigger, he'd begin what came so naturally to him, taking a wide swath in the huge pasture field to the left, all the while eyeing our cows that had spread out across that ten-acre pasture field during their full day of grazing. These cows knew exactly what was about to happen, but they pretended to ignore him.
It was as if Bruce were drawing a huge string around the entire herd, pulling it tighter and tighter, on one side, and then the other. Back and forth he'd weave a pattern, to the left and then to the right, snipping at the heels of any cow that did not stay inside of his mystic corral. Like liquid black and white, the wary Holsteins would slowly begin the inevitable plodding journey to the barn. It was milking time.
Bruce had arrived as a Christmas present as a puppy, I'll always remember. Harry was sitting in the family room in the ancient, lumpy chair I'd reupholstered with my awkward, unskilled city-raised fingers, fingers very much unlike those of most of my talented local farm friends. Our hundred-year-old yellow brick farm house and the two-hundred acres on the second concession of Culross Township, south east of Teeswater, had been our home by then, since 1963.
And on that wintery day in 1975, a momentous occasion for our three children occurred when they burst forth, Suzanne and Rob, our eleven-year-old twins and David, age five.
“Dad, Merry Christmas!" Their combined voices reverberated throughout the house. The twins had decided David should carry the puppy into the room. Then Rob and Suz together lifted the startled puppy from David’s outstretched arms, and like passing a basket of freshly laid eggs, the two together placed the hairy mass of grey gold and black on their Father’s lap.
“Dad, we got you a puppy for Christmas!” David got right to the nubbins of the matter.
Harry laughed, his face a mirror of utter surprise, his hands holding the puppy so gently, his index finger scratching the seven-week-old puppy behind the ear. “Well, little fella, you and I are going to be buddies, are we?”
“Yes, yes he’s yours!” Again, David speaking up.
“Do you like him, Dad?”
“He’s beautiful, Suz. I should know what breed he is…”
“Dad, he’s an Australian shepherd. They're great cattle dogs. This dog will work, Dad. You won’t have to get the cattle any more.” Rob added, knowingly.
“Dad, what will you call him? He’s your dog.” Suzanne asked. She adored her father and seemed always able to read his mind. By now all three children were cuddled around Harry, getting as close as a family can get. What a scene. I leaned against the doorway into the family room from the bottom of the staircase, soaking up this moment, knowing it would be a memory forever. I hugged myself with the joy of it. One old, red leather chair, a man and his children and his very own puppy. Christmas doesn’t get much better than this.
“Hmmm, let me see. Well, I’ll tell you.” He looked at his three children, Suzanne and Robert now eleven and David age five. “When I was a little boy in England, just like you, David, I had a dog named Bruce.” The puppy looked up at Harry and the children were quick to pick up on that.
“Dad, did you see that? Dad, did you see that? He likes the name.” Suzanne said.
“I agree,” added Rob. “Hi Bruce.” The puppy looked at Rob.
David clapped. “Smart dog!”
“Dad, maybe I should take Bruce outside for a minute.” Suzanne, always the practical one, scooped up the puppy and with Rob and David in close pursuit, she led the little parade out the back door and gently she placed the puppy on the snow. Before many minutes, the excited puppy left a yellow mark on the white blanket of snow that now covered the landscape. All three piped up, “Good dog, Bruce.” The training had begun.
We soon recognized when Bruce was happy. His long tongue would be hanging out, his ears would be on the alert, and he would be on the move. Aussies are busy creatures. He was never really trained, he just knew.
As Bruce settled in as a member of our family, we soon learned that he hated thunder and lightening, in fact he would crawl into the darkest hole to avoid it. We would always remember the day in particular when Bruce found himself locked in the small entranceway of our barn. Three doors to choose from, one into the milk house, one into the main dairy barn and the last a split door going back to previous owners to the outside. Bruce had sensed a bad storm was brewing.
It was Suzanne who happened to look out the window, “Bruce, come in, come in. Why aren’t you in the barn?” Another boom shook the earth. “Bruce. Yes, I know. Poor dog. A storm. Lie down, Bruce. I’ll get you a treat.” Suz went back to her homework after finding a left over hot dog in the refrigerator for her favorite dog friend.
When Harry returned from town, he backed the family van right up to the split door to unload all his purchases. He was glad to be home and looked forward to a cup he knew I'd have brewing. He found himself staring at what appeared to be an attack on the barn door by something as strong as a bear. The bottom foot or so of the wooden door had been ripped away.
Entering the laundry room, Bruce gave Harry a sad look. “Bruce, old buddy, that was terrible thunder, wasn’t it?” He scratched Bruce behind the ear and walked into the kitchen, his cup of tea already waiting for him on the kitchen table. “Dad, I saw Bruce standing out in the rain. You know how he hates thunder. I had to let him in.”
Meanwhile, Bruce, his chin on his paws, was now lying in the corner nearest the door to our back kitchen, delighted to be in with his family.
"Kiddo," Harry looked at me, his cup in hand asking for another cuppa.
"Something attacked our door to the barn. A hole in it big enough for a raccoon but I can't imagine a raccoon being stuck in that little passageway with three doors to choose from.
We all turned to Bruce.
"Ah, the culprit!" Bruce never lifted his head as Harry spoke to him. Instead he used his favorite trick to get absolute sympathy. He'd lift his eyebrows one at a time, as his eyes focused first on Harry and then on me, pleading forgiveness for whatever the misdemeanor of the day happened to be.
"Dad, he doesn't like storms, you know that." Rob had a soft heart and was first to come to the rescue. As he lay down beside Bruce to give him a full-fledged rub, Bruce wagged his stubby tail and nuzzled Rob, so much so that Rob was soon giggling uncontrollably.
Bruce became so much a part of our family history that when our children grew up and went off to college, the stories about Bruce went with them. When the city friends came for a farm weekend, the first questions would be, “Where’s Bruce?”
“Bruce loves to play football,” Rob would warn the friends with a grin, “Once he catches the football, he never, ever, gives it back.”
“Hup, ten, fourteen, twenty three, go!” all the complicated routines of a major league football game, all said in jest and the half-boys, half-men would weave in and our across the horse field, Suz often as not, a lead player, and Bruce in hot pursuit, hoping to nab the ball from whatever team had it. Of course, that meant the two teams would make a great fuss of chasing Bruce around and around the field, his quick feet and keen eyes keeping allowing him to be just far enough ahead of the desperate runners, that they would fall on the grass exhausted. Then, Bruce would simply drop the ball and return to the players, nosing their faces and giving the odd lick on the cheek. What would follow were many hugs and kisses for a much-loved dog and Bruce soaking it all up
I often saw those happy college kids lie on their backs out there in that field, exhausted from play, looking up at the sky and the sun and no doubt wondering if life could get any better than living on a farm. Soon it would be time for those young people to return to the city, to their studies and the life that lay ahead as doors opened; but with them they would take their own stories to pass on, about a dog named Bruce.
I knew how much our children loved that dog when I would catch one of three telling their friends: “Yes, that was the plant Bruce chomped on, Mom’s special plant! It caused his face to blow up like a balloon. Allergic reaction,” they’d add with the wisdom of a farm vet. Another time, “That’s the field where he and Pepsi hunted groundhogs together; that’s where he placed the groundhog bodies, and yes over there, in the curve of the creek is where Bruce almost died.” Everyone would just look serious. Where Bruce almost died?
That was a black day for us.
It was Rob, that day who came running in to tell us.
“Mom, Mom, Bruce is in trouble. It was a day in March when the ice on our greek that ran by the barn and house was just beginning to break up. He’s on the ice … well really, he is in the creek! He’s hanging on to the ice but he can’t get out! Mom. I’ve told Dad and he warned us not to try to get him; but Mom, Bruce is going to drown. He’s going to die!”
“Where is Suzanne?” I demanded.
“She’s out there. I don’t know what she’s going to do. I think she went to Dad.”
I knew Suzanne would disobey her father and go to the rescue. That girl saw things in a straight line and at the end of the line that morning, was her Bruce! Rob left again. I was ou the door in a flash.
Their Dad was carrying a long ladder. We all could see Bruce, well, we could see his head and his two front legs; and we could hear him barking. He was in the middle of the creek. The water under the ice was running high so there was no way he could touch bottom. And it was obvious to us he could not attain purchase on the ice above, to haul himself out. Our three were frantic, but seeing their Dad rushing across the field with a ladder, made them suddenly realize he would save Bruce. Of course he would save Bruce. He was Dad.
Far off, down at the corner, the big yellow school bus came into view. It was the one our three took to nearby Teeswater. The kids looked at their Dad now almost beside Bruce, and then back at the bus as it steadily drew nearer. It still had one more stop to make before it would be at the end of our laneway. The children began the journey to the bus stop refusing to take their eyes off their dog. Bruce had stopped barking by this time. They could see Harry placing the ladder across the creek.
Then their Dad, their hero, begin the crawl out to the spot where he could latch on to the slippery fur of Bruce’s back. By now the bus was at our mailbox. It stopped
The bus driver held steady not moving the bus one foot forward until Harry grabbed the dog, pulled with all his might, no doubt pleading with Bruce not to wiggle. With one powerful heave, Bruce was on safe ground. The bus started up, the driver tooting the horn and our three, heads and arms out the windows yelling at the top of their lungs, “Thanks Dad! Thanks!”
Harry lifted Bruce into his arms and the three of us raced back to the house as fast as one can over the stubble of long dry grass, sticking up through the snow. Well, in fact two of us raced and Bruce hardly moved; the shock of the entire horrible experience was beginning now to take hold.
In the house Bruce did not argue in the least when we dried him off vigorously and wrapped him in a big blanket, all the time telling him what a great dog he was. It took several blankets and more fresh towels, before he began to relax. Harry looked at me knowingly. I phoned the school to tell the principal that I had good news for our three children.
Bruce stayed in the house all day and when David, Rob and Suz burst through the kitchen door at 4:30 pm, there was Bruce smiling at them, tongue out, both eyes shining, eyebrows twitching as he looked from one to the other. Was he apologizing?
What ever he was suggesting, our children hugged him again and again and then raided the refrigerator.
Our Bruce, safe and sound again.