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You Gotta Love the Mutts

January 13, 2011

Sparkles

My first day as a firefighter was spent at the airport fire station. The station was a lime green left-over from the Schilling Military Airbase. A vast building that even had a flight tower.

The station officer was a slight-built fellow who was a master ping-pong player; the driver a heavy-set fellow with the moves of an NBA point guard – a few of our after-hour activities during our 24 hour tour of duty. The last crew member was a bit shorter than the other two – and had four legs. Her name was Sparky.

Sparky was short by Dalmation standards. Firefighters had a love or hate relationship with Sparky. Mine was love. So, it was a sad day for me when several years later Sparky was hit and killed by a motorist. Sparky made her mark on many firefighters. After her death, I vowed that one day I would have a Dalmation.

Dalmations were a tough breed to find back in the 1980’s – and expensive. Four hundred dollars was just a bit pricey for my $2.25/hr. salary. Then, after several years of searching, I found an ad that listed Dalmation puppies for sale. As had been my habit with choosing dogs, I opted for the smallest of the litter and named her Sparkles.

Dalmations have the energy of two or three dogs – they’re always on alert and they never seem to relax. Sparkles showed her energy and fun-loving attitude at a young age. My wife bought an expensive bed comforter and before using it she washed it and placed it on the clothesline to dry. The comforter would warm us for years to come – or would it?

Hours after hanging the comforter, a neighbor knocked on our door to inform us there was something terribly wrong. She said it looked like a snowstorm had hit our backyard – and it was July. Sparkles had turned our new comforter into a million and one cotton balls.

Emergency service tends to attract those whose motor runs at a fast speed. Some of these folks will be even higher paced than others. These would be your Sparkles employees. They might be branded as “suck-ups” because they are always doing more than others.

Sparkles energy and desire to please made her a perfect fit for public education. I taught her to “Stop, Drop & Roll” and the kids loved her. She was equally fit for my two young sons. Whatever our family did in the backyard, Sparkles was there to help us. When we dug a water-well, she was right there watching us every step of the way, helping by digging in the sand.

She was fourteen when the medical problems started. First, a large tumor appeared on the right side of her chest. It didn’t seem to hurt her, but it did bother her when she walked very far. Half-way through a moderate walk she would start limping. Sometimes, I would have to carry her to make it around the block.

Then, she started having trouble with her bladder leaking. I called the veterinarian hoping that he would encourage me to make the choice of putting her down. He didn’t. He suggested putting her on medication. It didn’t help.

She struggled through the fall season, but as we headed into the winter it looked like she was going to notch her 16th birthday. Then it happened.

The night was the coldest I could remember. A late night house fire blocks away from my own home resulted in the death of an elderly man. I got back home after the house fire at around midnight and went to bed. For some reason my wife woke up at 4am to find Sparkles lying on her side on the concrete patio. She cried for me to come quickly.

I launched from bed faster than I ever had in my firefighter career. I scooped up Sparkles in my arms and brought her into the house. My sons had awakened too. I held her tight to my own body trying to quickly warm her. Her eyes were open, but glazed over. As I tried my best to warm her, Sparkles took her last breath. The whole family cried.

The Sparkles are your top performers, the ones that leave their mark on the world. When they leave the organization you wonder if their departure will cause a total collapse. It won’t. The mark they left will live on with those who had the pleasure of learning from them.

To Sparkles and those like her, “Thanks for the memories.”

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