For years Granny lived a solitary life in a two-story white house with porches facing a dirt road in front and cornfields in back. Every few weeks, or as weather allowed, she hitched old Ted to the buggy and rode the bumpy ten miles into town. Granny visited with extended family members at a reunion every August, but otherwise connected with neighbors only occasionally. That was the case until the latest newfangled contraption took its place on her kitchen wall: a wooden, wind-up telephone box with two silver, dome-shaped ringers on top.
After baking an extra-spicy apple pie to finish off Grandpa’s pre-dawn breakfast of slab bacon and freshly-gathered eggs (he liked them submerged in bacon grease and the edges fried crispy brown), Granny would wipe her hands on her gingham apron and with a glint in her eye poke her finger in the “0.” Then she expectantly wound the dial all the way around to the curved metal stopper to signal the operator.
One day in October she lifted the receiver from its cradle and dialed “0.”
“Hello there….Nettie? Can you connect me to Irene, please?”
“Sure Margaret. Just a minute. Let me plug her in for you.”
With the cone-shaped receiver poised against her right ear, Granny picked a fleck of drying pie dough from her apron, leaned against the soot-stained wall next to the warmth of the still-hot wood-burning stove, and waited.
Finally, she heard a scratchy female voice travel through the wire and into her ear!
“Hello?” Granny turned to shout directly into the black mouthpiece.
“Irene! It’s Margaret! Can you hear me?” She bent forward as if straining her slender body to press it through the mouthpiece and into the box. “I just got Jay fed…he’s gone out to work on that barn roof patch.”
“Margaret! I’m glad you called! Fred just left to check out some tractor repairs.”
Hungry for feminine camaraderie and captivated by Irene’s voice, Granny ignored her dog, Hunter, as he barked wildly outside the kitchen window.
“So Irene, what do you think about our John wanting to go to college? Have you ever heard of such a thing? Way down south – it must be more than a hundred miles away! Course he’s only just now fourteen, but still…”
Hunter’s insistent, non-stop barks - “bawh-wawh-wawh-wawh-wawh” - forced their way into the conversation.
“That dog! He must have a squirrel up the pine tree, Irene.” Granny half-laughed, choosing to side-step her irritation. “So Irene – what do you think – how expensive is college?”
But Hunter had only begun. His barking escalated with increasing fervor. “BAWH-WAWH-WAWH-WAWH-WAWH-WAWH!”
“You think what? Wait, I can’t hear…Hunter…what is the matter with him, anyway?” Granny snorted indignantly. “Just a minute Irene – have to go quiet that dog.”
“Alright. I’ll be here when you get back, Margaret.”
The phone receiver hung from its thick cord and knocked softly against the wall. Granny opened the screen door and called out to Hunter: “You stop that racket right now!”
Hunter pounced on Granny, grabbed her apron in his mouth, and pulled her out into the yard.
“You stoop that – Hunter, what is WRONG with you? Let go of me – Hunter!”
The ruffled edge of Granny’s apron ripped. “HUNTER!!!”
And then she smelled it – smoke.
Above the house a black cloud billowed. In the kitchen Irene’s voice chirped through the receiver: “Margaret – Margaret are you there? Margaret – are you…Margaret….?”
Granny untied her apron, waved it over her head like a flag, and screamed to Grandpa who was perched on the other side the steep barn roof. “Jay! Jaaaaaay! The house! Fire - FIRE!” By the time Grandpa climbed down and joined his frantic wife, orange tongues had licked through the upstairs windows above the kitchen and consumed the roof.
The farmhouse burned to the ground. While helpless to stop the fire or save their possessions, my grandparents praised their hero: the panting, fiery-tempered rescue dog, Hunter.
Years later this story filtered down to my generation. And now as a grandmother myself, I wonder what Hunter was thinking at the time of Granny’s rescue. Could he have known about her morning ritual with the telephone? Did he sense danger with some sort of inborn intuition?
I choose to think that wiry, energetic, white-haired pet with floppy ears – the intelligent dog who retrieved pheasants and accompanied my dad when he gathered minks from his traps - was transformed into a barking, insistent, fire-fighting angel of mercy the day the farmhouse burned.
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