Sunday, July 22, 2007


I love hats. To me, hats are imaginative and adventurous. One can express feelings with a hat, dip it low over the eyes, or thrust it back on head in a jaunty way.

Unfortunately, the small town area where I live is probably one of most unsophisticated areas in our country. Only the young teens seem to get away with wearing hats, their baseball hats turned backward or sideways, other hats worn to emphasize their costumes.

The men who live around here can wear hats, utilitarian hats that keep the sun from their eyes, the aforementioned baseball hats, or even cowboy hats. The women seldom wear hats, unless they belong to the Red Hat Society, then they do it from a sense of fun. Most of our women wear what could be called a uniform, the slacks or jeans, the t-shirt or sweat shirt. We certainly couldn't be accused of high fashion as we go about our busy lives.

Years ago, a little old lady lived in our town, a schoolteacher who had taught in our elementary grades for many years. A tiny woman, she was no bigger than a minute, with a graceful body, and after her retirement, she walked uptown every day, dressed to the nines, a huge, flowery hat perched on her head.

That hat was all it took for the rumors to start flying. Folks called her Batty Betty. She supposedly had been a dancer and it was said that she would dance on the tables at the local bars and some of the teenagers around town even bragged that she had "put out" for them. It was the hat that caused most of the talk. If Betty had walked to town bareheaded, hair flowing in the breeze, probably noone would have paid a moment's attention to her. With the hat, she became a local legend and it would take a great deal of courage for any woman to march around town wearing a hat.

That is, until the proprietress of our local diner opened the doors of her shop. A part-time policewoman, married to a policeman, she wears a hat at every opportunity and wears it with aplomb. A very attractive young woman, with a bright and welcoming smile, her hat is as accepted as herself and the town has welcomed both her and her hats.

However, the rank and file citizen shies away from hats because, Heaven forbid, if anyone moves away from conformity, something terrible might happen. It is difficult to distinguish one citizen from another here. The women wear their slacks and t-shirt uniform, the men are in jeans and shirts and everyone looks a little harried and sweaty. One has to go to a banquet or a party to meet these same people in their best clothing, and then they are almost unrecognizable.

Marching through the stores of this area with a service dog is not an easy task. In the first place, one cannot see my handicap. If I had crippled legs, or a back that made standing painful and impossible, no one would look twice at my dog. As it is, I look as healthy and normal as anyone else and, Thank God, except for the flappers, I am. But the ears do not work well and, if I don't take my dog out a couple of days a week, she will forget how to behave in public.

I think I have mentioned the time I took her to a Chinese restaurant and the waitress shrieked and fled to the kitchen, where she stayed, peeking around the corner at Jedi, until I left. The manager waited on me, and I survived that meal, but it wasn't easy.

I don't know how many times I have been approached by store managers and strangers who demand that I take my dog outside, because "dogs aren't allowed in here, the Health Department forbids it!" I don't know how many times I have run into the rude, crude individuals who loudly comment, "I ain't eatin' with no damned dawg!"

It is against the law in Michigan to harass anyone with a service dog and there are many times I could have called the police on certain individuals. I never have, but have simply tried to explain my handicap and why the dog has to accompany me in public. I travel with Jedi and, if she forgets her training, this would not be possible. But educating the public is sometimes both harrowing and seemingly impossible. Yet, I try to remember the many, many loving and understanding people who smile at me and at Jedi and seem to realize her importance.

My favorite memory is the woman on the Florida beach who approached me angrily and said, "Are you deaf? You don't look deaf!" I don't know what she thought deaf people should look like, but I told her that yes, I am hearing impaired, but I can communicate with you, because I lipread. She said, "Hah! I read lips, too, and I ain't deaf! You gotta lotta nerve bringing that dog on this beach. Dogs ain't allowed here. I'll tell you had better not poop! If it poops, I'll call the law on you!"

Of course, Jedi chose that precise moment to squat and the woman stepped away to man her cellphone, obviously calling the law. I cleaned up Jedi's waste, and within moments, the Park Ranger appeared. I had talked to him earlier and he had okayed Jedi's visit to the beach.

Before their conversation ended, the woman got into the Ranger's face and kept saying, "That dog pooped, sir! Pooped! Pooped! That ain't allowed on this beach!"

The Ranger became angry and ordered the woman away from me, telling her that she risked arrest. By this time, a crowd had gathered and they seemed to be taking a vote on whether or not Jedi should be allowed to poop on the beach. Fortunately, the vote must have been in my favor, because voices in the crowd started calling..."Leave her alone, lady!"....."Go home, lady!"

I didn't stay long on that beach, believe me, but I hope this episode will explain to everyone just how hard it is to have a service dog in today's world. This little dog, who lets me know when the Alarm Clock goes off or when someone comes to my door, lives her life on the end of a leash. I take her for walks, but she hardly knows the freedom some dogs enjoy. She must work, when other dogs are chasing balls and wagging their tails. She must listen for sounds, when other dogs are barking at the neighbors. She's antsy and hyper-active and frequently irritating, but she is alert to sounds at all times, day and night.

There are dogs that sniff for bombs. There are dogs that signal an epileptic seizure. There are dogs that pull wheelchairs, open and close doors, and pick up dropped items. There are dogs that lead the blind across streets. And there are dogs that inform the Deaf and Hearing Impaired when that smoke alarm goes off.

So when you see one of those dogs in a store, a restaurant, or on the street, be kind. Don't pet it, don't approach and speak babytalk to it and take its mind off of its duties. Just realize that lives can depend upon these dogs, that they are lifesaving animals, and say a little prayer for their acceptance in a world that is frequently hostile.