PREVIEW – Gwendolyn Greene and the Moondog Coronation Ball of 1957


On a dusty country lane, leaning toward an otherwise unremarkable farmhouse of indeterminate age, stands a solitary historical marker that, at least in theory, is meant to attract the attention of passing motorists. With its easily forgotten names and dates, the marker may soon vanish beneath a sea of tall grass, and no one will be any the wiser, including a few of the committee members who helped raise funds to have it placed there. If, by chance, a few lost travelers, trying to find their way back to the interstate after a day of antiquing in town or a weekend of camping in the nearby state park, do stop to read the succinct paragraph inscribed on its bronze plaque, they will learn of a girl who, many years ago, lived in this house and made a sacrifice to human progress, though I’m not sure she would have appreciated my use of the word “progress.”

For a time, the committee considered purchasing the property from the current occupants and converting the house into a museum, but Heavenly Hill, tucked away in the remote foothills of rural Ohio, was unlikely to attract enough visitors to warrant the restoration costs. Still, the members unanimously agreed that something needed to be done to keep Gwendolyn’s memory alive. During her lifetime, she never craved recognition, and I’m doubtful she would have wanted a historical marker outside her childhood home. Trivial facts, she once told me, had nothing to do with reality because they failed to tell a meaningful story. For this reason and others, Gwendolyn disliked history, or maybe I should say distrusted it. She was skeptical of authority in general and could be strident in her views.

The house sits half an acre from the road on a ridge overlooking Lost Village Lake. Like so many of the homes in Heavenly Hill, this one needs a fresh coat of paint, new windows, gutters, roof, and masonry work. The foundation’s handmade bricks have started to buckle and crumble, and whenever a ferocious summer storm sweeps over the lake, the tiles peel from the rooftop and sail into the weeds and wildflowers. In 1957, when Gwendolyn Greene lived here, the house had been in slightly better condition. Her mother, suffering from a chronic case of dysmetropsia, had died three years earlier when, rather than shrink and tumble head over heels into the starry sky, she hit her head one night on the family dock and fell into the lake. After the tragedy, Gwendolyn had assumed most of the household chores and tried to keep the place tidy. She hung the linens on the clothesline, cleaned the kitchen, mowed the lawn, and set traps in the cellar to catch the mice that nested behind the furnace. She never complained and never once spoke ill of her father.

Mr. Greene, the first farmer in the county to breed alpacas (“Dumber than deer,” he used to gripe, “dumber than goats”), had started drinking too much. A once ambitious but largely unsuccessful man, he would sometimes fall asleep in the barn after working long hours in the fields. There were times Gwendolyn found him half-buried in a haystack, surrounded by empty whisky bottles and bleating alpacas. With their long necks and inquisitive child-like eyes, the alpacas looked like extraterrestrials, and she sometimes wondered if they were castaways abandoned centuries ago by the mothership. In the Andes, she told me, there were mysterious temple ruins, and on the high arid plateau, there were enormous animal geoglyphs that a few renegade scholars believed to be sophisticated maps of the Milky Way.

As her last surviving childhood friend and as the publisher of Heavenly Hill’s weekly newsletter, The Sentinel (to call it a newspaper anymore would be farcical), I was invited to compose a first draft of the historical marker to show the other members of the committee for their editorial feedback and final approval. There were five members in all—the head librarian, the junior high math teacher, the retired city councilman, the orthodontist’s wife, who was quick to remind the rest of us of her generosity in providing most of the funds for the project, and then there was the eccentric pensioner who, at a makeshift desk in his one-room cabin overlooking the lake, wrote a newsletter that he photocopied at his own expense and distributed to a handful of small businesses along Main Street.

History as a collective effort is usually indistinguishable from propaganda, and it wasn’t long before the committee started arguing over what I’d written. They’d expected me to compose something that could pass as socially sanctioned piety. Mainly they took issue with my depiction of Gwendolyn’s Australian shepherd McKenna as “an unscrupulous sneak with a long criminal record, a gray-eyed scoundrel with a taste for vanilla custard and whipped cream.” This quote was borrowed from Willard Anderson, a longtime newspaperman who sometimes felt the need to take liberties with his uninspired source material. Today The Sentinel is just a hobby of mine, not an honest profession, but in the summer of 1957, Heavenly Hill’s newspaperwas a proper tabloid with a small staff of beat reporters, copyeditors, admen, and a chain-smoking, charmingly alcoholic editor-in-chief who ran stories about everything from the Red Scare to the latest bank auction of a family farm. Economic hardship and nuclear annihilation were Anderson’s favorite themes. Almost every morning, readers were informed that intercontinental ballistic missiles might at any moment rain down on their heads and lay waste to the free world. At the prospect of nuclear winter and national extinction, some neighbors built bunkers behind their houses. Gwendolyn’s father, someone not given to paranoia, purchased a shortwave radio and claimed to hear the steady beep-beep-beep of a Russian satellite circling the globe.

Whenever he sensed his overstimulated subscribers were going a little nutty waiting for the impending apocalypse, Willard Anderson published the occasional human-interest story. One such story, penned by Anderson himself, has been preserved in the local library’s digital archives. The 500-word feature included a grainy black-and-white photo of a professionally groomed dog and could have been easily accessed by the committee members if they’d had the inclination to read it, which evidently they did not. Amused readers, before turning to the crossword puzzle, dismissed the story as the fantasies of a man who’d penned it late at night after uncorking the ubiquitous bottle of bourbon stashed in his bottom desk drawer, but I can personally attest to the fact that, during the summer of 1957, McKenna’s behavior had become increasingly difficult to explain. Difficult to explain, that is, for those who didn’t know the whole story.

According to Anderson, on a sunny afternoon in late June, while sitting at his desk near the big picture window, he observed a petty crime taking place down the street at the corner soda shop. He waved his hand through the oppressive haze of cigarette smoke that hung heavy over the newsroom and leaned forward to get a better look at the local girl and her canine bandit. Gwendolyn had gotten into the habit of taking McKenna for long walks into town and leaving him unattended outside the shop while she treated herself to a chocolate phosphate.

With a quick twist of his head and shake of his neck, McKenna would slip from his collar and perform tricks for the children sitting with their parents at the sidewalk tables. In the bright sunshine, he paced along the curb and balanced a tennis ball on his snout. After an enthusiastic round of applause, the children lowered their paper cups and gave him the remnants of their vanilla custard. Unsatisfied with these offerings, McKenna devised clever tactics for getting entire sundaes and ice cream cones. On a sweltering day in June, he saw an opportunity to score big. With a perfectly calibrated swing of his head, he tossed his ball to a group of toddlers milling around the soda shop. Sure enough, in a clumsy attempt to catch the ball, a little boy dropped his cone. But before he could howl at the injustice of this fate, McKenna darted toward the mess splattered on the pavement. Within seconds, he lapped up every drop of strawberry custard and wolfed down every crumb of sugar cone.

About a week later, he encountered a recalcitrant little girl who, all too familiar with his antics, jealously guarded her cone and ignored his invitations to play. McKenna tried giving her the sad eyes, but when he realized this ploy wouldn’t work on one so wise, he whimpered with frustration, scratched his left ear, and trotted down the block. He waited for a customer to exit the five-and-dime and then darted inside the open door. A few minutes later, he returned with a large plastic pony hanging daintily from his mouth, the pony’s mane and long blonde tail brushing the sidewalk. The little girl’s eyes widened. McKenna placed the pony at her feet and ran his tongue across his mouth. When the girl reached down to grab the pony, McKenna snatched the dripping scoop of raspberry sorbet from her cone and bounded away.

By then, Mr. Baluk, owner of the five-and-dime, came storming down the street. He fiddled with the oil-slicked strands of his combover, seized the pony from the little girl, and demanded to know why “this mongrel” wasn’t on its leash. When Gwendolyn stepped outside the soda shop, she guessed right away what had happened. She stood speechless in the doorway and watched the girl burst into tears while McKenna slunk away in shame.

The following afternoon, having made an appointment with Gwendolyn, Willard Anderson arrived at the Greene’s house and was greeted with a friendly bark of hello. McKenna pushed open the screen door and guided the editor over to a rocking chair on the front porch. The dog darted down the steps and disappeared around back. When he returned, he had a can of beer in his mouth, which he placed with care at Anderson’s feet.

The charming and lovely Ms. Greene has been training the Australian shepherd ever since he was a pup, and she takes great pride in his abilities—sit, shake, stay, fetch, roll over. Whenever he is hungry, he happily trots to the family’s upright piano in the front parlor and pounds on the keys. But what’s truly remarkable about this precocious pooch is his uncanny ability to understand human language.

According to Ms. Greene, McKenna knows nearly one thousand words, and she kindly offered to give me a demonstration. She hid a dozen toys around the yard and then called out, “Find big baby!” and “Fetch blue elephant!”

Panting with excitement, McKenna went racing through the yard, sniffing around every bush and tree until he dragged an old rag doll from under a hedge and spotted a stuffed animal tucked between the thick roots of an old oak. This demonstration continued for nearly thirty minutes, during which time this reporter witnessed McKenna retrieving balls, sticks, frisbees, hula hoops, a pair of sandals, an umbrella and, I’m happy to report, more cans of cold beer.

An hour later, after saying goodbye to Ms. Greene, I realized I’d misplaced my car keys, not unusual for a man of my years, but McKenna found them under the cushions of the chair. He raced over to me and placed the jingling keyring in my hand. For a minute there, I actually thought he might hop into the driver’s seat, snap on the radio, and chauffeur me home while I listened to the ballgame.

When I first read the article, I wasn’t sure why Gwendolyn had agreed to the interview and photoshoot. Maybe like a proud mother who can’t help boasting about her talented child, she simply wanted to see McKenna’s name in print. It was only later, after the animal psychologists and rocket scientists descended on Heavenly Hill, that Gwendolyn told me she’d made a conscious decision to change the course of history.

For his part, Willard Anderson was guilty of journalistic malfeasance. He’d simply taken Gwendolyn’s word that she had trained the dog. But I happened to know that McKenna came by his abilities in a most extraordinary way. No doubt, some will argue that what transpired weeks earlier on a starry night in early June had nothing to do with McKenna’s gifts. Maybe they’re right. I have no desire to argue the point and no interpretation to offer. My sole purpose in describing the following incident is to unburden myself of the secrets Gwendolyn and I kept for all these years, the details of which do not appear on the historical marker bearing her name.            

We never breathed a word to anybody about what happened that night, and many years would pass before we reluctantly brought the subject up again in conversation. But by then, so much time had slipped away that it was difficult for us to make sense of what had truly happened.

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