The Legacy of Katrina with a dog named Bruce

28 08 2010

As the five year anniversary of Katrina has just passed, my thoughts went to a man named Al and his companion, a Golden Retriever, Bruce. I was honored to write about them in my book, UNDERDOGS: Valuable Information and Stories of Transformation. (The book is of course available at http://www.mchmorethanme.com, http://www.amazon.com, http://www.barnesandnoble.com and can be ordered at any book store.) I have included an excerpt of their compelling story here, and the rest can be found in UNDERDOGS.

Al Sinabaldi of New Orleans, Louisiana, walked to his mailbox on a beautiful spring day and thought all he would bring back to his house were some letters and bills. What he found instead, was a beautiful Golden Retriever standing there as though waiting for this elderly yet active and gentle man. The happy spirited dog, approximately four years old, stood staring up at the kind gentleman as if to say, “Looking for a dog?” With his shiny, full coat, Al assumed the dog must have been cared for by someone, but he wore no tags or collar. The two strolled back to the home Al shared with his wife, Joy; Al’s heart racing at the idea of this lovable companion, but he knew his first responsibility was to search for the dog’s current owners. Al placed an ad in the daily newspaper for a month but no one stepped forward. The connection that started twenty nine days earlier had gotten the green light to flourish.

Al and Joy welcomed Bruce into their home like an old friend who had always been with them. Bruce joined Al on their daily sojourns to the mailbox, splashed and jumped playfully into his water bowl and generally enamored everyone who met him. A skilled carpenter, who was known as his neighborhood handyman, Al built Bruce a fabulous roomy dog house complete with a heater. Bruce, much like the comic strip Snoopy, spent more time standing on top of it than sleeping inside. He was an indoor dog who yearned to be with Al; steadfast comrades, they made life better just by being in one another’s company.

Since life with Bruce was so easy and carefree, Al decided to get another dog. Duke, an eight week old Dalmation, joined the family, but over time it was clear that Duke did not have Bruce’s peaceful nature. He was jealous, and his perception as second in line to the title of top dog didn’t sit well with him; Al did not trust Duke to play amicably with Bruce in the yard. Duke became a well- tended outdoor dog, and Bruce laid claim to the man who had lit up at the sight of him a few years before. In the summer of 1999, Al’s beloved Joy died after over forty nine years of marriage. The depth of Al’s devastation was muted, in part, by Bruce’s presence. He was an anchor of affection helping Al navigate through raging seas of loss.

After Joy died, Al continued involvement in his church teaching students at the vacation bible school how to make things with their hands. When his heart had healed significantly, he took dance lessons and insisted all of his prospective dance partners first meet Bruce. His motto was: “Like me, love my Bruce.” Al continued to take excellent care of both Duke and Bruce, including veterinary check-ups, shots and heartworm medications. Al noticed Bruce’s eyesight seemed to be failing when he was nine years old. The doctors confirmed he had inherited a degenerative eye disease that would unfortunately lead to blindness. Al asked for an operation for Bruce but none existed. He settled for giving him a medication everyday to slow the onset of the blindness, making special meatballs so the pill-taking routine would be tasty rather than dreaded.

In August of 2005, the storm called Katrina was threatening the lives and livelihoods of those in Al’s neighborhood. Having worked for the Sewerage & Water Board for over twenty five years, responsible for pumping out water during Hurricane Camille in 1969, Al didn’t think the city would ever flood. He took notice when his friends and family members urged him to evacuate along with them while the storm was still out at sea, but he wanted to stay in his beloved home with his dogs. A neighbor recalls a conversation with Al, before the storm hit, when he expressed that maybe he should have put Duke in a separate crate in the car with Bruce and evacuated; he would consider handling it differently next time. Then the frenzied winds blew, and torrents of rain washed over New Orleans. After the storm had quieted, neighbors recalled seeing Al starting his car, inspecting the wind damage, and no doubt counting his blessings that he, Bruce and Duke had all survived the hurricane. The unforgiving rains collected endlessly in basins not meant for such volume and force. The strained levees would defy Al’s prophecy; the city would be overwhelmed with flooding.

One will never know the fear Al experienced as the water rose and his options ran out. He placed Duke in the garage, hoping to keep him safe, but Bruce remained at his side. Al put his life vest on, pulled the attic steps down and used a hatchet to help him break through the ceiling. He put out food and water for Bruce. Al did what he could to escape the peril of his situation, but he also cared for his cherished companions in case he did not survive.
As teams of people came into the city in the aftermath of the storm to rescue people from roof tops and the sodden insides of their homes, Al’s daughters, friends and neighbors assumed he was freed from his waterlogged prison with Bruce in tow. Several days later, and with no answers from the search and rescue teams about whether Al had been rescued, Al’s family decided to take matters into their own hands. Al’s other daughter Cherylyn who lived in Georgia volunteered to drive down to see if they could find Al. She and her husband George sneaked into her father’s neighborhood before the road blocks went up. It was a war zone, destruction at every turn, and people were being discouraged from entering the area. Her eyes were met by a large red X on the outside of Al’s dwelling, indicating that the house had been searched and no bodies were found. Since Al was known to protect his house by boarding it up during past hurricanes, Cherylyn knew that no search and rescue teams had ever set foot in the house since all of Al’s safeguards were still intact.

Cherylyn and George furiously pulled plywood off of the windows, broke the glass and made their way into the home. Their senses were assaulted by the heat, smell, and broken furniture. It was nothing compared to the image Cherylyn will carry with her, the sight of her father, almost unrecognizable by then. He had likely died of a heart attack. The water had only risen to about three feet, and Al was a good swimmer; he just never had the chance to test his skills. Al, as ever, was not alone. By his side, with an oily sheen on his normally glistening coat, was a sad and fearful Bruce. With his failing sight, Bruce might not have known what happened to Al, but the intuition of a dog is stronger than its five senses. Duke did not survive the storm and was later laid to rest in the backyard that had been his home for many years.

No one had come to find Al. He had died in his cherished home while his trusted dog stayed near him, very much alive, waiting for help to come. Numbed by the events of the day, and uncertain whether she could safely accommodate Bruce on their thirteen hour trip back to Georgia in a cramped camper, Cherylyn made the decision to call the animal rescue in the area to come and get Bruce. Food and water were left for Al’s dog with the hope that the rescue would act quickly. It would be several more days before Bruce would be escorted out of the hellish existence he had endured for far too long.

The story of Bruce is just beginning.. the rest can be found in UNDERDOGS.

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