Apr/May 2019 Nonfiction

Memories of Seumas

by Peter Bridges

Photograph courtesy of Peter Bridges

Photograph courtesy of Peter Bridges

We started with cats, early in our married life. The first one we acquired in Verdun, where I was serving as an American army private. Mary Jane named him Henri Chat. He died after some months in an awful epidemic of what the vet called typhus félin, panleukopenia. The second cat we got during a year in Bavaria; we gave him to the owner of a dairy store in Garmisch before we went to our embassy in Moscow. The next summer, back in Garmisch on vacation, we found our former pet grown nicely plump on milk and mice.

Our last cat was a Muscovite given us as a kitten by Seymour Topping, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow. After two years in the Land of Soviets we exported the cat to Paris by air in a carrying basket, without problems—although for some reason the Soviets required a feline exit exam, and the Moscow vet said, I think in jest, "You are robbing us of a Soviet citizen!" We took the cat with us onward to America on the S.S. United States.

We had brought our new Volkswagen Bug on the ship with us from Europe. When we debarked in Manhattan, we got the car out of the ship's hold and I left the family at dockside, to take the train to Washington and report to my new boss, Jacob Beam, lately our ambassador to Poland. Mary Jane, children, and the kitty started driving toward Illinois. I would join them there for home leave before we all moved to Washington.

After driving west for several hundred miles, my wife and small party stopped for the night at a motel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was a warm night, and she left the window, which was screened, open in their room. Sometime in the night the cat pushed out the screen and vanished. In the morning, after an exhaustive search, Mary Jane placed an ad in the local paper, left her mother's phone number with the motel manager, and continued sans cat to Chicago. Wonder of wonders, some days later the motel called: they had the cat. Mary Jane left the kids with my mother, and with her mother drove back to Pennsylvania, recovered the cat, and drove again to Chicago. It was one of a series of problems my wife has dealt with over the years while I was sitting oblivious in an office.

Six months later the cat died under the wheels of a cruel car in Washington. That was enough cats. They could be fun and lovable, but they were not good interlocutors.

Soon began our happy canine era that has lasted a half-century and more. I will not try to tell of all the dogs, or of the ocelot and a smelly king snake, that have formed part of the lives of ourselves and various relatives. With one exception the dogs have been fine creatures. The exception was a beagle that bit me hard when I tried to help his owner, an older connection of ours, to stand up after he had fallen in his yard in the wake of some martinis.

Our first dog was the brightest and most beautiful of all the bright and beautiful dogs we have owned. He had been adopted from a Maryland dog pound by my Foreign Service colleague Neil McManus and his wife Clare. They named him Seumas McManus, after Seumas MacManus (sic), an Irish patriot and the last shanachie, storyteller in the ancient tradition. MacManus published many volumes of tales that, he said, he had learned by a hundred firesides in Donegal.

Seumas the dog was good-sized; he weighed perhaps 70 pounds. He had a retriever's broad head and sturdy build. His fur was fairly long and mainly white, with some brown and a very little black. We had Thanksgiving dinner with the McManuses in Washington in 1964, and as we sat in their living room after dinner, the noble creature came over and nuzzled me, wanting to be petted. I loved him immediately, but he was not ours.

Not many months later Neil McManus fell sick, so sick that he and Clare moved from their house to an apartment on one floor, sent their two sons off to boarding school—and gave Seumas to us. It was perhaps the best gift we ever received. When he joined the Bridges family in Washington, I was far off in Geneva, spending weeks on the American delegation to the East-West disarmament conference. One day a two-line letter arrived from daughter Elizabeth, aged seven: "Dear Dad, A dog is coming. Love, Liz." I knew what dog it was. Tears came to my eyes.

I had to fight my way home to my family and our new dog. I was our delegation's English-Russian interpeter, and I knew the Russians; our delegation head, William C. Foster, didn't want to lose me. After I finally returned to Washington, at dawn most weekdays I would take Seumas for a long run, from our modest townhouse on Cathedral Avenue down to the wooded stream valley that is Rock Creek Park. In a mile we would turn right and run up a smaller stream valley under the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks. It was a lovely, quiet place, full of blooming trees and flowers in spring. There was a road along Rock Creek but just a path in the little valley, and there I would let Seumas off his leash to run free.

One morning he disappeared. I ran, callling his name, up and down the valley, and up the paved walk leading to the streets of Georgetown. Should I run around Georgetown looking for him? I thought it more likely he was somewhere down in the park. I failed to find him, and finally ran home. We parents went to work and the kids to school, all of us sad as could be.

It was late morning, and I was sitting in my office when I took a telephone call. A woman's voice asked if I was Seumas's new owner. Yes. She had been the McManuses' neighbor in Foxhall Village. She had just looked out her window, had seen Seumas lying on what had been his lawn, and invited him into her house. I called Mary Jane. She was as busy as I, teaching in an inner-city school, but when she had a few minutes free she went and picked him up. He was glad to see her—but he had been unable to resist a return to his old home.

I told Neil later what had happened. He was sure the dog had never been on the streets of Georgetown, had never traversed the two-plus miles from Dumbarton Oaks to Foxhall Village. He just somehow knew the way.

Meanwhile Neil's health improved. He looked good. EUR, the State Department's Bureau of European Affairs, decided he should go to Belfast as the American consul general. The consulate general was a small but important post, keeping Washington informed of the bloody troubles in Northern Ireland, a key region of our closest ally.

But the Department's Medical Division would not give him a clearance. Tests showed the malady had not vanished. Neil's friends thought that was absurd. Neil was in good shape for work, Belfast had fine hospitals if he should need one, and London with at least equally fine hospitals was just an hour away by air. The Director General of the Foreign Service weighed in, and Neil and Clare went to the Emerald Isle. And the McManuses, bless them, did not ask for their dog back, which in a sense was just as well because there was a four-month quarantine for dogs brought into the United Kingdom.

Soon after this, in 1966, I was assigned to the embassy in Rome. The Bridges family, of course including Seumas, sailed happily to Naples in calm seas on the S.S. Constitution. (We never, by the way, renamed him Seumas Bridges; if we ever called him by his full name it was Seumas McManus.)

I was assigned to Rome for four years, but as we were nearing the time to leave Italy, the Department agreed with a request from our ambassador to have me stay on for a fifth year. I did not demur.

For our first four Roman years, Seumas was my running companion at dawn, when we lived on the Via dei Banchi Nuovi, where in the 1500s Benvenuto Cellini had crafted his fine pieces. The two of us would run a half-mile down the winding old street and do laps around Domitian's ancient stadium, now Piazza Navona. The dog also came with us on weekend rambles to little-known Etruscan sites, small summits in the Apennines, and vacations in the Dolomites. He was good and even entertaining company. One Sunday I was leading our son David and Seumas along a mountain path above Guadagnolo, the highest town in the Lazio region. There were big blackberry bushes along the path and big ripe berries on the bushes. I stopped to pick and eat, and then looked behind me and laughed. David, too, was picking and eating—and so was Seumas.

There was perhaps one drawback to the dog's behavior on country rambles. He liked to roll in cow manure. For our first several years in Rome, until our fourth child, Andrew, joined us, our car remained a VW Bug. Mary Jane and I got the front seat, and the three kids and Seumas squeezed into the back. We wiped off the dog before driving back to the city, but as daughter Mary still recalls after four decades, some odor remained to trouble those in the back, while parents could keep the front windows open.

Seumas committed one or two other minor sins. He once—I think once only—could not resist stealing an ice-cream cone from a child's hand. In summer we would take him to the beach at Fregene. After a couple of hours there one day, he looked for but could not find a tree or fence to pee against. Our young friend Grant was sitting with his back turned to the dog, constructing a sand fortress. That served. (The back, not the fortress.)

Altogether, Seumas caused us few problems. He was a prodigious leaper. David remembers him easily clearing the horse jumps in Rock Creek Park. One Sunday in the countryside outside Rome, he vaulted a high fence topped by a strand of barbed wire. A barb caught him and ripped a gash an inch long in his belly. Next day in Rome my wife took him to our vet, who said it was better not to stitch the gap and leave bacteria inside. He'd heal quickly. Indeed, within several days only a scar was left. He was a healthy creature.

Another day we did a walk of several miles with a group of friends around the Lago di Martignano, the small round lake in what was a volcanic cone lying just east of the much larger Lago di Bracciano. The lakeside land was divided into pastures by low fences, which we climbed and Seumas leaped over. The first pasture was inhabited by a dozen horses who looked attentively at the dog, but he stayed close to us and the horses stayed at a distance.

The second pasture had in it different equines, a dozen or more unusually big mules. Their sires must have been not ponies but draft horses. They raised their ears and started toward Seumas. I sensed they were in attack mode.

"Quick, Seumas," I said. The mules galloped toward us. Humans and dog got over the nearby fence safely and the mules stopped, looking at us scornfully, or so I thought. We avoided mules on subsequent excursions.

Seumas had a diffrerent sort of animal encounter one summer, when we took him with us to vacation at Selva in the Val Gardena, loveliest of the Ladin-speaking valleys in Italy's Dolomites. We had rented an apartment at the edge of town, in a large, low farmhouse dating from the 1700s that belonged to a family of Mussners, a common Ladin surname.

One day we decided to walk up the Vallunga, a long, flat valley lined with dramatic cliffs. A trail led for several miles through rich pastures on the valley floor, then angled up the left side to reach eventually the Rifugio Puez, a 100-bed alpine hut situated on a grassy alp 8,000 feet above sea level, 3,000 feet above the town.

Local propaganda calls the Vallunga "a unique holiday paradise," and I think that may be true. It was a sunny day, and we walked up the valley admiring lots of brown cows grazing there. Seumas stayed by us, though off the leash; big cows like these were clearly not creatures to be chased by a mere dog.

We left the valley floor, angled up leftward, and after some while we were 1,000 feet above the valley floor. The downhill side of the path was steep but not precipitous, covered with low evergreens.

The path turned toward the left—and suddenly, not far ahead of us, were two sheep. These were creatures of a size to be chased. Seumas chased. The two sheep, with dog following, careened down the slope toward the valley. We could hear Seumas barking as he ran. We yelled for him to come back, to no avail. Then all was still below us. We kept yelling. In five minutes he came back up to us, frothing at the mouth from the exertion. The sheep must be far below us. We wondered if they were alive. We chided the dog, leashed him, and started off. In a minute we came on the rest of the flock—and the shepherd.

"I saw it all," he said, "through my binoculars."

"I am terribly sorry," I said. "If you cannot recover the animals I will of course pay for them. We are Americans, staying with the Mussners at Daunei. We will be there for ten more days, so please call us."

"Very well."

We passed the flock, Seumas peaceful now, reached the Puez hut and had drinks in the sun, and walked back down to Selva without again seeing shepherd or sheep.

The shepherd did not call. We returned to Rome, and at Christmas came back to Selva to ski. One day Mary Jane went to enter Lizzie in a kids' race, and found that our shepherd was the race manager.

"Buongiorno," she said. "How are the sheep?"

"Bon dí," he said. "They're all right. How's the dog?"

A good people, the Ladins.

Back in Rome, when Seumas, on leash, and I would walk down Corso Vittorio, Italian mammas would snatch up small children as we approached, saying "Ti mangia!" or "Attenti al lupo!" Well, Seumas was neither a child-eater nor a wolf; he liked humans small and large, but most large dogs in 1960s Italy were fierce white sheep dogs bred to protect their flocks from wolves or other strangers.

One cold and rainy Sunday, the Bridges family stayed home and read books. After a while I felt the need for fresh air. I drove with Seumas out to the Appian Way and down its ancient pavement for several miles, passing many old Roman tombs but only two or three Roman cars. We reached a two-lane crossroad which had little traffic. (It is now the Grande Raccordo Anulare, Rome's six-lane ring road that carries more traffic than any other road in Italy.) The Via Appia was closed to cars beyond that. I parked, and the dog and I started walking out the roadway paved with big volcanic stones. It was rougher, now that the connecting cement was gone, than when Appius Claudius Caecus built it in 312 BC. We could see cars on a modern road a half-mile to our left, and city buildings far on our right, but our old road was bounded on either side by open fields.

Then we reached a Neolithic farm on the right side: two houses of a sort the Latins were building in the age of Romulus and Remus, round structures with stone walls four or five feet high topped by conical thatched roofs.

A chicken stood in our roadway. Seumas ran at it and followed the chicken into the farmyard—and ran out again, followed by two big, white sheep dogs. I yelled, but it seemed no human was about. I said "Come, Seumas," and we started down the road, the two sheep dogs close on our heels. I thought they were going to attack us, but they did not. Eventually they turned toward home. When we had walked another mile, we turned back toward our car, across the fields, staying a good quarter-mile away from the strange little farmstead. I could understand now the concern of Roman mothers when they saw Seumas approaching on a sidewalk.

For our last months in Italy, we moved from central Rome to an old, fortified farmhouse on a low ridge in the open campagna, 20 miles from the city. It was a near-idyll, and we and Seumas enjoyed many more good rambles.

Alas, we had had him just five years, and he must have been seven or eight years old, when he died of cancer. We buried him beyond our house, near a row of ancient olive trees, with a view of Apennine ridges that he and we had summited. Soon we were transferred to Prague and acquired Dingo, another great dog. But this is a tribute to fine Seumas, well remembered by us all, who lies in a place of peace and beauty.


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