We moved to Pancake Flats more than twenty-five years ago, when the kids were still living at home. We found a solid house just on the edge of town and real close to a wheat field. Right next door—that is, about a quarter mile up the road—was another house just like it. Only a week after we settled in, a black couple moved in next door. His name was Gib and his bride’s name was Helen. On the other side of us—another quarter mile—is the Morgan’s old house. It was built in 1901 and now has the third generation of Morgan’s inside (Fourth, when you count their boys.) They’re a real nice, helpful family.
Our house was in the middle.
Gib and Helen were the best neighbors we ever had—ever, and this story is about them and a little about how much My First Wife Chancie and I love them. Gib was a frustrated football player. He played a little ball at K-State, but wasn’t quite up to the NFL. So he settled for a good job with the Kansas Highway Patrol. In fact, he was the first black highway patrol officer in all of this part of Kansas. He looked real handsome in his uniform and Helen beamed every time she stood beside him. They were both strong and good looking. I’ve still got a couple of old pictures we took back then. Helen worked in the old Woolworth’s store till it went belly-up.
We drove past their house every time we went one way or the other, so there was plenty waving of at each other, and sometimes we stopped for a hello. We did various chores together—always helping each other. Helen, Chancie and Morgan’s wife did lady things. Gib taught My Boy and the Morgan boys some fine points of several sports. We were good neighbors.
One warm and sunny April afternoon Gib and Helen had a little baby girl. They named her April, even though at the time it was popular to give a black child an African name that was hard to pronounce and harder to spell. Somehow, I got in the habit of calling her Pretty Miss April. And she was a pretty little thing. Chancie and our kids thought so, too. The Girls liked to dress her up and put little ribbons in her hair. Every once in awhile we babysat for Gib and Helen, and they returned the favor if we asked.
One of those times, when Pretty Miss April wasn’t even two years old, I was holding her on my lap and watching TV. All of a sudden, she looked me right in the eye, yanked the Binky out of her mouth and said, “Poopie!” She put the Binky back in her mouth, lay against my chest and promptly went to sleep.
From that moment on, Pretty Miss April called me Poopie—still does. Chancie and I were like God-parents, I suppose. Aunt, uncle, maybe. We gave her Christmas gifts and birthday presents, and helped her folks worry about her school work.
She ended up an only child. I’m not sure why. About the time she figured out how to walk, she also figured out how to wrap her daddy (and me) around her little finger. If she wanted, she got. She was the center of his plate; the stage for his lights; the edge of his dreams. Gib was one proud papa.
One day Gib brought home a cute little Golden Retriever pup for her. Everybody just naturally called that dog Bobo. Bobo and Pretty Miss April grew up together. Never was a couple of God’s creatures better fit together. Whenever I saw Bobo, I knew Pretty Miss April was close at hand. If I saw Pretty Miss April outside, I saw Bobo, too. Sometimes I think they were joined at the hip. Those two loved each other and took care of each other. The only time they weren’t together was when Pretty Miss April was at school or off to town. In that case, Bobo waited patiently on the shady porch.
Bobo had to stay outside all the time. One late afternoon when he was just a bit of a pup, a ripping-loud bolt of lightning smacked just about a hundred yards from him. He bolted for the back porch, and tore up the back door, shivering, whining and scratching to get in. Every bolt of lighting for the rest of his life sent Bobo galloping to the back porch to huddle, whine and shiver.
“It’s okay, Bobo. It’s okay,” Miss April always comforted. She wrapped her little arms around him and whispered in his ear, but she couldn’t let him in the house.
I know a secret: Gib didn’t allow Bobo in the house. However, when he worked the night shift, Bobo slept indoors. I think he even slept on Pretty Miss April’s bed. I know another secret: I think Gib knew that.
Nor was there ever an uglier day because Gib and Helen and Pretty Miss April were the only black people in Pancake Flats. They knew no one would come to their house for a party, so they asked if they could have her party in our backyard. That way, because everybody knew our family, the white children in Pretty Miss April’s fourth grade class would come. If they had to, they could use our bathroom. My First Wife Chancie was so mad about the whole deal that she thought it would be a good idea for her to “get sick” at the last minute. That way, everybody would have to go back up to Gib and Helen’s house.
It was a girl day. Gib worked the day shift that Saturday. I drove Chancie's car to town for a store-bought oil change, then drifted over to Bertie’s Pie and Coffee Shoppe for a lazy cup of coffee and some pie. I remember seeing those storm clouds out across the western prairie. I thought they were awful big-looking to be so far away. It was only two o’clock.
Some days later, Chancie told me that despite the uncomfortable reason the party was at our place, everybody got along well and had a good time. Six little white girls and their mommies—and Bobo—had a good time at Pretty Miss April’s birthday party in our back yard. In fact, everybody had such a good time, we wondered if maybe Gib and Helen might have made a mistake thinking nobody would go to their house. I’m not sure if I’ll ever know the answer to that. Nor will I ever know the answers to Pretty Miss April’s precious questions that came the day after.
Just about the time the party ended, those storm clouds arrived in Pancake Flats. They came in dark and thick; boiling with lightning and spinning with wet wind. The mommies at Pretty Miss April’s party had the good sense to gather up their daughters and take off for home. Most of the folks that were back in town got in their vehicles and hurried home, too. I was driving behind the Morgan boy.
Now Chancie volunteered to take Bobo home in the back of my pickup. Naturally, Pretty Miss April rode up front--as close as she could get to Bobo in the back. Helen jammed all the presents in the back seat of their car and headed down the road. Chancie drove behind carrying Bobo so he wouldn’t lope home and get drenched and covered in mud.
I saw it all. The Morgan boy and I rounded the corner and headed toward them. Helen and Chancie were about half way back to Gib’s house. A bolt of lightning suddenly lit up Pointer Road. The sound of it was so loud I swear it was visible. Terrified, Bobo lurched out of the pickup right into the Morgan boy’s headlight. He tumbled fifteen feet.
Everybody stopped. The Morgan boy slid his car to the side of the road. I whipped up behind him. Both of us raced to the dog. Chancie stopped. Pretty Miss April came screaming to Bobo. Helen was already in her yard, but she heard Miss April and ran hard to come to the mess we had.
Bobo was dead still; his eyes looking up over the top of his head. He was breathing hard and steady, like he had been running awhile.
“Bo-Bo!” Miss April screamed. She fell upon him. “Bo-Bo!”
“No, April,” the Morgan boy said. “We can’t hold him. We might hurt him worse!” He forced the little girl off, while I ran my hand along the dog feeling for broken bones. The wind was blowing raindrops our way.
“Chancie, call the vet!” I yelled. “Tell him to get out here now! And get ahold of Gib, too.”
Helen rushed up to hold her daughter. “Is he…?” she panted.
“This ain’t good, Helen,” I said. “Hold that baby away from here. She doesn’t need to see this.”
“Bo-Bo! Mama, help him! Poopie, don’t let him die! Bobo get up! Bobo!"
The Morgan boy’s dad noticed the commotion and drove down from their old house at the end of the road. The boy started bawling. “I didn’t mean to… I didn’t even see him! I wasn’t driving fast, Pop… I couldn’t help it…”
Mr. Morgan ran his hands over the shivering body and slowly shook his head. He stood up and said, “He’s got a broke back. Up high by his neck.”
“I thought so,” I agreed.
“I got a rifle in the pickup,” he said quietly. “We’re going to have to put him down. This dog’s hurting real bad.”
“Let’s wait for the vet. Maybe Gib, too. Just get a blanket or something. We’ve got a downpour in another minute or two.”
Chancie came back. The vet was on the way. Then we saw the glow of flashing lights off over the horizon. As luck would have it, Gib wasn’t that far away. He and another state car were zipping to Pointer Road. And then those ugly clouds opened up on us and sent down some of the coldest and fastest rain Kansas ever knew.
In all the wet darkness and cold confusion, I ended up holding Pretty Miss April out there in that pouring rain. I was carrying her to her yard and her front porch. Even in the noisy storm, she heard the shot go off. Her gangly little body stiffened in my arms.
“Daddy! No!” She screamed over my shoulder, out into the wet darkness.
“Your daddy didn’t do that,” I said. “Somebody else. They had to, Honey. They had to. Bobo was in real bad pain.”
She collapsed into sobbing and gurgling for Bobo. I wished her mom or dad was carrying her, not me. The rest of the evening lasted till about nine o’clock. It was a cold April night.
The next day, the day after Bobo died, was Sunday. A bright, sunny, cool start, but a little warmth was promised. Gib was waiting for us on our porch when Chancie and I got home from church. “We want you to come for dinner tonight, if you would. Want to thank you for everything you did for us yesterday.”
“Now, Gib, honey, you don’t have to thank us.” Chancie told him. “We’re your neighbors,” she sang. “We’re fam-lee.” Then in an abrupt change of voice she asked, "How is April?”
“She’s asking questions we can’t answer. That’s why we want you to stop by. This is a little different. It’s important, and since you’re church folks…well, I’m asking for your help. Me and Helen think the dinner table might be the best place.”
So we had dinner at Gib and Helen’s house that evening. It wasn’t long before Helen poked Pretty Miss April into asking me a question. “Do you think Bobo went to heaven? Do dogs go to heaven? For real?”
“Sure they do,” I told her confidently, although I had a funny feeling of hypocrisy.
“How do you know? How can you tell?’
“Well, the Bible has a little something about it. Go get me your Bible and I’ll show you.”
“I don’t have one.” She turned to her dad, “Do we have one, Daddy?”
Gib twisted in his chair, embarrassed. Helen rolled her eyes. “Well, we have that family Bible. I keep it in the closet. I’ll get it.” She pushed herself away from the table, “I have to put April’s name in it anyway.”
“Sorry,” Gib said.
Helen came back with a big clean Bible, in a box that originally held new cowboy boots. It had been in that box for years. That was fine. Scripture is Scripture, I figure. I thumbed my way to the last book of the Bible. The pages strained and crackled like new books usually do.
I found the chapter I was looking for. “I was reading this part just a few days ago,” I told April. “Look here what this verse says. See that verse fifteen? You want to read it to me?”
Her curious eyes bore down on the words, and slowly she read every syllable aloud, “And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.”
“Good. You read very good, Miss April,” I said. “Now, see this word right here,” my big finger pointed out. “What’s that word?”
“No, the next one.”
“Horses. In heaven. Did you know that God keeps horses in heaven? What do you think?”
April just stared at the words.
“Well, the way I see it, Miss April, is that if God keeps all those horses in heaven, then he surely must keep some fine dogs there, too. Does that make sense to you?”
She shrugged a little and said, “I guess.”
“Old Bobo is a fine dog,” I told her, “and I’m sure he’s up there in heaven, looking down on you and wagging his tail right now. He’s waiting on a special porch, just like always.
“For real,” I told her emphatically. “And—he won’t ever be scared by lightning again.”
Helen spoke up. “I didn’t know that was in there? I’m impressed. Chancie, did you know there were animals in heaven? Gib?”
After a moment, Pretty Miss April put her skinny little arms around my shoulders and lay her little head against mine. “Thank you, Poopie,” she whispered, and her precious ten-year-old tears blessed my shoulder.
To this day, I wonder if I gave her the right answer.