When Duke was king
My guardian angel at the crosswalk
I don’t know about you, but I believe in guardian angels.
They’re everywhere, watching over us even when things are good, stalking us closely when we’re feeling vulnerable, lonely or lost. Often, we feel their presence but never see them. They come to us when they feel the time is right.
In grammar school my guardian angel was a very big old dog named Duke.
In fact, he was the biggest German shepherd I ever knew, large as a grizzly bear standing next to me. One day he was just there at my school crosswalk as Mr. Fenton, my favorite crossing guard, was ushering me across the street.
Mr. Fenton was in his late 30s — tall, friendly, clean cut, a great role model, who lived by the crossing guard book and dedicated himself to his job keeping the kids safe. He always wore a gleaming white smile to match his neatly pressed blue uniform and spotless white gloves.
”Hi, Mr. Fenton,” I said just as he gave me the all-clear signal to cross the street.
At the sound of my 7-year-old voice a big dog came bursting out of honeysuckle bushes that were still pink in bloom. His ears were pointing straight up, tail wagging.
He came running over to me and sat down in front of me. We were nearly eye to eye he was so big.
“Looks like you’ve made yourself a new friend,” Mr. Fenton chuckled.
I wasn't expecting a new friend — least of all a big, mangy old dog from out of nowhere.
Perhaps I needed his companionship and just didn’t know it. The long walk home could be treacherous at times if you weren’t careful. There were speeding cars, driven by teenagers in places that had no sidewalks, mean dogs and neighborhood trouble makers. We were especially told to be wary of strangers.
Before I uttered another word, the dog was on his feet and leaning into me, ready to escort me down the sidewalk.
We started walking.
The dog’s pace was slow due to his age, but after a while it was fun having him as company. We continued walking until my house appeared in view. Then, as if by canine foresight or intuition, the dog took off trotting into the nearby woods, leaving me to finish the final leg of my journey home safely.
I quickly forgot about him as the next episode of ”Dark Shadows” was about to air on television.
The next day after school he was sitting at the crosswalk. His ears perked up as soon as he saw me coming.
Mr. Fenton knew a lot of people in the neighborhood and had learned that the dog’s name was Duke. He had been aptly named by his elderly owner after the big, tall, lanky Western movie hero John Wayne — and as everybody knew in those days, nobody messed with the Duke.
And nobody ever did when they saw me and Duke coming.
”Duke’s been saying some really nice things to me about you,” Mr. Fenton said with a wry smile, looking both ways at the oncoming traffic.
”Really? A talking dog? Wowww,” I said, completely missing the point.
“He seems to be a really good friend to you,” Mr. Fenton said. “Ya know, friends like Duke aren't easy to come by in this world. So appreciate him. And be safe going home.”
Mr. Fenton entered the crosswalk, arms outstretched, then waved at me to step forward.
One thing was certain about Mr. Fenton: he knew good dog character. Duke sidled up next to me, panting and wheezing happily at the sight of me, and together we walked toward my home in silence.
Sometimes, Duke liked to stop and sniff at the delicate white dandelions blowing away in the grass or chew on them. He was never gone long, though. Once the brick and mortar chimney of my house peeked over the trees, Duke parted ways once again and went strolling off into the woods.
This is how it went for me — day after day — throughout most of my third grade year at school. I had gotten so used to having Duke around that I forgot what it was like walking home alone.
Still, I could never quite see why I had been chosen by this scruffy old canine to be his traveling companion. What made me so different or special?
The other kids thought it looked weird.
I did too sometimes.
Then one drizzly afternoon, Duke wasn’t there waiting at the crosswalk. The next day it was raining and still no Duke.
I could see by the tortured expression on Mr. Fenton's face that something was wrong.
Mr. Fenton cleared his throat, and on bended knee, he put his hand on my shoulder. His voice quavered as he tried to educate and console me at the same time.
"Duke was an old dog, you know that, right?” he said in a fatherly tone. "Dogs are like people. In time, they have to go away too. He was a good dog. The best dog ever. Remember that.”
It took me a few seconds for the reality to sink in. I felt a sudden lump in my throat and my chest began heaving in and out like an accordion.
I pulled the visor of my yellow rain hat down to cover my face so that Mr. Fenton couldn’t see the water streaming down my cheeks.
In a difficult world, he said once, a good friend is even harder to find.
Fifty years later, I know these words to be true. Because I never met another dog quite like Duke, my big guardian angel at the crosswalk, who found his way home without me.