Have you ever chickened out on an opportunity, with no reasonable shot at an encore, and regretted your cowardice? I have.
And 30 years later, as luck would have it, it seemed I might finally redeem myself.
This unlikely chance at redemption occurred at the unlikeliest of places, a sheep farm in Scotland. Our tour stopped there not so much to see the sheep, but the sheepdogs.
Perhaps you’ve heard of or seen sheepdog trials on television. These competitions challenge a dog handler to command his dogs, from a distance, to maneuver a flock of sheep across fields, around gates, and towards or away from the handler.
Our shepherd was Neil. Shepherd’s hook in hand, he looked the part. A bit rough around the edges, with plaid shirt, weather resistant pants, and a five-day beard, his tousled hair waved in the breeze as he gave his spiel.
The yard was filled with dogs. Scottish border collies of various ages roamed around, each hoping to join the elite cadre of herders. For our demo, Neil directed five dogs.
He did this using both voice and whistle commands. In order to have the dogs work as a team, each performing a different task, each dog would have his own set of commands. A whistle sound meaning “go left” for one dog would mean nothing to another, he’d have his own whistle.
A herd of sheep, not known as being particularly bright, is milling around a field off in the distance, out of sight.
A pack of dogs, of a breed many consider the most intelligent among canines, await their running orders.
A shepherd, rough on the outside but with well-polished skills on the inside, sizes up the problem. On one level, educate a batch of clueless tourists on what is being attempted. On another, speak to five different dogs in five different languages that both individual dog and handler can understand, but leaves the tourists baffled. Using these commands, move the sheep around, positioning the dogs by having them obey commands in detail, and do all this without having the sheep scatter in six directions with dogs chasing them in five.
Sometimes it would be a single dog, moving the herd.
Sometimes they’d work in teams, going so far as splitting the herd into smaller groups.
In all cases the dogs were on it, with a fascination and enthusiasm that made us wonder why they didn’t go off half-cocked.
It was impressive.
They may have been sheep, but they seemed pretty cowed.
And when all was said, whistled, and done, the dogs lined up on command, inspecting their work, proud of a job well done.
After the demo, there were a few other enticements. For those into the younger set, a feeding frenzy.
But what does any of this have to do with personal redemption? Had my life, at some stage, gone to the dogs?
Let’s back up 30 years. I was a freshly minted scuba diver, and had just fulfilled a childhood fantasy – diving the Great Barrier Reef. But before heading home from Australia I made a little side trip. A visit, inland Australia, with a young couple I’d met a couple years earlier.
It was a chance to chance to experience the real Australia, outside the realms of touristville. I learned the joys of Vegemite (blech!), of Yabbies (an Aussie version of crawdads – yum!), and the perils of trying to keep up with an Australian at the beer cooler (don’t even go there.)
It was also a chance to visit a working sheep station.
As it happened, I visited while they were shearing sheep. Brawny Aussie dudes, clad in sleeveless T-shirts, they physically manhandled the sheep and gave them a quick shear a Marine boot camp barber could only hope to emulate. And after I watched a few haircuts, they offered to give me a try.
I chickened out.
I gave myself some lame-ass excuse about not wanting to get my freshly cleaned clothes dirty before hitting the road again. But in truth, it intimidated me. And after I left, and every time I’d see someone shearing sheep on TV, I’d kick myself. I’m sure those Aussie guys would have been happy to help out the American city slicker, and that my fears were groundless.
So, when 30 years later, I looked at the tour itinerary and it mentioned a sheepdog herding demo and the option of shearing a sheep, I said to myself, “finally!” One less monkey crawling across my shoulder blades.
Ok, so the reality of the opportunity didn’t measure up to the reality of the sheep station. One was a gritty workplace, full of sweaty men cranking out shave jobs, the other a tourist gimmick. Childs play, you might even say.
It was a hand holding deal all the way. But it was a real sheep with a pelt that had real value, and Neil didn’t want a bunch of tourist hacks trashing his clip jobs. He’d hold down the sheep and set the clippers in place, all the tourist had to do was squeeze. Snip, snip, snip.
Tourist hack or not, I did not bail out again. Even if it was only symbolic, even if it was just a few snips, even if it was a shadow of the full, manhandling experience, this was one lifelong regret I had to put to rest.
And so the visit ended. Neil had a productive day; he scored some tourist cash and found a different way to take advantage of a sheepskin. The tourists enjoyed a demo of working dogs that was truly impressive, and a chance to hang out with lambs and puppies. And I put an old regret to bed.
As for the sheep and the dogs, tomorrow would be a new day; a new chance for ovine idylls of life in a meadow and the dreams of a young dog to join the big show.