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The Trials of Aging: How Buster, the Thousand Dollar Dog, Helped Dad Cope

January 15, 2015

Buster, the Thousand Dollar Dog

The bones of this true story were written by my father, circa 1995, which I finessed into this piece which appeared in several papers at the time. It spoke to me recently and I’m happy to share it here—with the photo opportunity a blog allows.

By Vernon U. MillerP1030805

Dad, Buster, and Mom on their farm near Wakarusa, Indiana.

We bought Buster as a baby Border Collie. He was very smart and easy to train from the very beginning.

One of his first lessons was to halt at the road as I went across to get the mail. Naturally he wanted to follow. So I took the newspaper and lightly spanked him saying, “No, no.” After that I don’t recall that he ever tried to cross the road with me to get the paper. Indeed, he could be tearing along chasing a rabbit, but if the rabbit ran across the road, Buster stopped.

Buster and I soon became the best of friends. He followed me constantly on the farm. Even when I was plowing my field that was a half mile long, Buster would follow. So I would pick him up and perch him on the fender of my Ford tractor, so he wouldn’t wear himself out tagging along. This soon became his favorite place, because he could scout out mice, rabbits and ground hogs from there.

The ground hogs were his favorite to chase. As soon as he spotted one he would want to jump off the tractor. But I knew it was too far away. So I’d tell Buster, “No, not yet.” We crawled along on the tractor and when we were close enough, I’d urge him, “Go!” and he shot off: usually he got his ground hog.

In the barn yard, he knew which sow was always left out first, and saw to it that she would go where she was supposed to go. After the sow did her business, Buster would bring her back in. He spent so much time with the pigs he often smelled like a pig and padded around happily with mud caked to his underside.

As a working dog, he enjoyed the freedom to roam within the confines of the farm. He humored me and anyone I could gather for an audience, by hopping through our tire swing, posing on a 50 gallon drum, or on the porch swing. He was gentle with the grandchildren even when they were toddlers.

P1070079 Dad with my oldest daughter, Michelle, circa 1983, and Buster on his beloved tractor.

But life is not always kind to dogs or men. When Buster was about 12, I developed diabetic neuropathy, and became confined to a wheelchair for a period of time. I could no longer farm. We had to sell all our farming equipment and made plans to move.

Friends, relatives and church members helped to get everything ready for the sale. I begged the doctor to let me go home from rehab for the day of the sale. He said if my oldest daughter, a nurse, would take care of me, he would let me go.

The sale went along well, but the bidding slowed down when it came to selling Buster’s favorite Ford tractor. The auctioneer knew the tractor was worth more money and he also knew Buster’s many tricks. He looked around, spied me, and called, “Vernon, where is that dog?”

P1050661Buster posing on the tractor at Mom and Dad’s farm equipment auction.

I called Buster and he tore through the crowd to my side. “Get on the tractor, Buster,” I said. He jumped to his perch on the fender. Everyone clapped. The bidding started up again and went up another $1000 until the auctioneer was finally satisfied, earning him the moniker, “Thousand Dollar Dog.”

That summer we built a barrier-free house to accommodate my wheelchair on a plot next to our old place. Buster moved with us to the new house, but he didn’t understand why.

The farm was as much in his blood as it was in mine. Buster thought he needed to go up to the barn to help chase the hogs and do chores. He growled at the strange man tending his pigs. The new owner was afraid; he couldn’t trust a snarling dog. They said he snipped at one of their daughters.

There was nothing we could do but tie up Buster at our new home. He was old, too old to learn new tricks. Buster cried and cried; we shed some tears too. Where was the freedom he longed for? What kind of life was this for a hard working farm dog? What good was he? These were questions I asked myself too, as I massaged my useless legs.

Buster became more and more feeble, with no reason to live. He stopped eating and drinking. Finally we knew that there are things worse than death. If we couldn’t give him back the farm, we could free him from his broken heart.

I think there were some who thought I would soon be gone, too: a farmer deprived of his work and life. Over the years, through therapy, prayer and hard work, I gradually regained the use of my legs. I practiced standing and taking steps until one day I walked free of my wheelchair. Even while I was in my wheelchair, I set up a shop in our garage where I enjoyed building doll houses and toy barns for children who will probably only ever be farmers in their dreams.

But as I putter, I enjoy remembering every farmer’s dream dog: Buster tearing across a field at the word “go.” Stopping short if a rabbit foiled him by crossing the road. And dear old Buster hopping up on that trusty tractor when the bidding was slow.

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Epilogue: After the onset of his illness/disability in 1986, Daddy lived 20 more years, gradually adding the use of a cane, walker and then again a wheelchair. Mom took care of him until the last week of his life in 2006 when he had to move to nursing care. Mom is still amazing and active at 90. The photos below are an early photo from when they were just dating, and a later one from the 1980s.

P1050640P1030806

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Has a pet ever helped you cope with illness, disability, change? I’d love to hear your story!

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How does a parent or grandparent’s example speak to you?

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This story was originally published in Living magazine. Today the magazine I serve as editor is called Valley Living and is online here.

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Here are two of my favorite posts on Mom and Dad; other links may automatically show up below.

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From → Faith, Family Life

11 Comments
  1. Lovely essay, Melodie. You must read it through tears, both for your father and for Buster. So much life in this story.

    We had farm dogs too, and they were all different breeds: Teddy (collie), Nellie (rat terrier), and Mike (white German Shepherd).

    Mike was the second dog purchased from the same litter. His puppy brother, also named Mike, was smothered by a cow who rolled over on him. So Mike was loved twice as much.

  2. When I read it afresh, I totally broke down. My cat even wondered what was up with me. It was a good cry. I like your list of farm dog names and breeds. I can imagine some sad little Hersheys when the cow rolled over on the puppy.

    Dad wanted to adopt a second Border Collie but by that time, he wasn’t really strong and active enough to train one, nor did they have the farm where a dog could roam. That one did not work out so well and they had to give him to someone else. But we won’t focus on that today!

    Condolences to your family on the loss of your brother. Thanks for the comments.

  3. We never had pets at home (except for some wee bunnies we tried to nurse), but Grandma and Aunt Ruthie did – a lamb, and a series of dogs, among them three-legged Skippy and Sporty, who appeared lately in a home movie on my blog.

    Poignant story: I need a dog like Buster to sit on top of my car when I go to trade it in 🙂 You sure do favor your beautiful mother. And storytelling certainly is in the genes!

    • No pets. Wow. But maybe you didn’t live on a farm (trying to remember if I’ve picked that up or not from your blog). The Buster trick was one of Dad’s favorite stories in his later years–and he loved to write things down for us but his letters and essays were a trick to read with only the 8th grade education that he had.

      I love that early photo of Mom and Dad. You can see the romance sparking in their eyes. They had a 60 year romance, I’d say. 🙂

  4. Caro-Claire Wiles permalink

    Although I do not have a story to contribute, I must say that I did enjoy reading this beautiful and poignant story and I am sure it is one that holds a special place in your heart too. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Beautiful story! Working dogs love their work as much as their humans. I had two cattle dogs that worked on our farm…one of them saved my hubby from getting trampled by a crazed steer. It is terribly sad when a farmer and farm dog lose their jobs. This brought back so many memories of my own, including having to put my beloved cattle dog, Hutch, down five years ago during my illness and chemotherapy. He was so old and had lost the use of this rear legs, and still he tried to ‘guard’ me from harm.

  6. A kudos from the master of dog stories (you) is high praise indeed. Thanks, Sharon. Glad for the smarts and spirit of the dog who saved your hubby from being trampled. Scary. Have you written more about Hutch? I’m sure you have, I should search your blog but if you have a link, I would check it out!

  7. Linda Miller permalink

    Melodie, I have been wanting to ask your permission to copy an article you wrote in the MWR but I didn’t know how to get hold of you. Now I’m not sure where the article is but may I have your email address? Thanks. LRM from KS

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