Years ago my oldest brother used to live amid boulders on a hill in California.  His house was perched on a height of land, a formation known as Polly Butte, which rose in peaks near his home.  In the early morning, I recall the dark form of one of them under a crescent moon. Here and there about him, both above and below, were the homes of other inhabitants, none very close by.  The boulder population far outnumbered the human.  A pole gate over an entryway to his acreage, had a sign saying, "Rocky R" as you drove in.  As you drove out, on the opposite side, were the words "Vaya con Dios," Spanish for "Go with God."   To the left, as you went up his driveway, there was an orchard with oranges, apricots and peaches. To the right, on higher ground, he had olives, lemons and grapefruit.  By the house, were avocado trees.

       Close to a thousand feet of elevation, he could look down on the valley floor below, and part of the neighboring city of Hemet, with its lights at night.   And at a greater height, he often saw the stars scattered in the night sky

       At that time he was nearing 60 years of age.  The second born of the family, he was baptised Francis Joseph, but had long been called "Joe" after our father.   Unlike most of us children, he was born in California, and he says he was named after San Francisco, the city in which he was born, and St. Francis of Assisi.  I call him Francie, and remember him too as FJR, perhaps in imitation of FDR, the initials of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
                            Francie's house is the one to the right, with the peaks of Polly Butte in the background.

On Polly Butte he shared his dwelling with a large, dark dog named Sam, who enjoyed sorties among the rocks and chaparral, and running to catch sticks. A mix of shepherd and Labrador, with Lab predominating, Sam usually wouldn't fetch and retrieve the stick, but would often lead you on a chase get it.  He sometimes seemed to have an almost human feeling.   One one occasion, Francie's grandchildren were walking in an orchard near his house, when Sam spotted a rattlesnake in the path of his granddaughter Marcie who was unaware of it.  Sam thrust his body in her way, pushing against her and impeding her progress, a little to her annoyance.  Her brother Matt was behind, and witnessed what happened next.  Sam took off and  made a beeline for the snake, seized the reptile in his mouth, shook it violently and flung it aside in two pieces. 

      Marcie said Sam used to follow her all over, being very protective of her.  She remembered the time that she was gathering eggs and screamed.  Sam ran to the coup, attacked the chickens because he thought they'd hurt her. 

      One night Francie was awakened by a very disturbed Sam, growling and barking loudly.   He opened a side door to see what the commotion was about.  Sam was standing in the driveway near the far corner of the house, before the high ground where the olives and citrus grew.  In the dark Francie saw Sam facing off with a mountain lion, just feet away him on the upslope.  Being a true watchdog, he was standing his ground against the larger animal, which the early Spanish explorers called gato monte.  Francie got out his shotgun, loaded it and fired it into the night air.  The lion took off.  So did Sam as he was gun shy.  

       Sam was brought to my brother's house at a time when Francie really didn't want another dog.  He'd had a crippled one, and the poor thing got around with a wheeled rig, and eventually died.  But Sam more or less adopted my brother.   He jumped onto his lap, stayed with him and was soon a real sidekick.  He'd come as a pup and in time, grew to be large dog and would weigh about eighty pounds. You might say of him that he became top dog of the hill.  When a pack of a half dozen coyotes appeared at the lane to my brother's place, all Sam had to do was stand, lower his head and stare at them and the wild creatures would retreat from him.  He usually did not bark; his presence, bearing and look was enough.  Francie believed what they were after was water in a bucket he set out for Sam.  And I'm told that such coyotes are so bold as to snatch away your cat when you're at home (pictured right, Sam at 2 yrs.).
      Sam might appear a bit awesome to the coyotes, but he was also a dog of gentle bearing. Feed him by hand, and he would gently curl his tongue to obtain the food.

      One time Francie went to Hemet Ryan airfield with Sam riding along on the seat of the truck as he usually did.  My brother was going to fly with another pilot in a small plane.  Francie told Sam "Stay," to wait with his friend Frode Andersen who was standing on the tarmac a few planes away from the plane my brother would be flying in.  This was a safety precaution. 

      Francie got into the plane and closed its door, the window of which was yet open.  Suddenly, the cockpit filled with darkness, as Sam ran to the aircraft, jumped up onto the back of the wing, and from there, leaped through the open window.  My brother doesn't remember whether the plane's engine had already started when this happened, but if it had been, Sam executed his maneuver through the rush of air blowing back from the propeller, called a prop wash.  He had apparently sized up the situation, and wasn't about to let his master leave without him.  One of my brother's concerns about having Sam at the airfield, was to keep him away from a spinning prop.  He warned Sam about the danger.  If it was spinning that particular day, Sam's approach completely avoided it. He got into the plane from the back as Francie did.  

       Many dogs will chase cars, but Sam chased a plane, up in the sky.  On occasions Francie's close friend Keith Yoakum*, flying an Aeronca Champ, would fly over Polly Butte, pull back the throttle and let the engine idle.  The plane would be relatively silent, sailing above.  He'd yell down, "Sambo!" and Sam would look up.  He knew Keith really well and Keith's voice.  He would chase after the plane as the terrain would allow, only to be soon outdistanced.

       Something else in the sky caught his attention one time as a young dog.  He saw the moon and was barking at it from the back of the pickup, when he walked over the open tailgate, became a bit airborne and of course subject to gravity.  He never did that again. 

      As a companion and a watchdog, Sam was a blessing. And his being there at my brother's side, may evoke a scene from the past, a scene from a time when we were children on the farm in Iowa.

      The details are shrouded in the mists of years gone by and recollections differ, but it may have happened around the year of 1936. The Indian Creek ran through the north-south length of our farm, winding through a shallow valley.  This particular time, the stream was flooding, whether from melt water from thawing or from rain is not recollected for sure.  Francie, our brother Bob and my oldest sister Marie, had gone to get the cows from the pasture across the creek. 

      My mother had warned them to stay away from the creek. She wanted them to bring the cows home by the Dead Road, a local road that ran along the south edge of the farm, with a bridge spanning the high water of the stream. But they didn't listen, and attempted to cross the creek nearer home.

      Not far from the farm place, there was a plank bridge which had no railings, and which at the time was apparently inundated or the approach to it, flooded. Francie recollects it being underwater, and that he was going to cross on its submerged span since he felt he knew where it was. Marie remember wading atop rocks somewhere near the bridge, where there were remnants of a dam, built of rocks during the dry weather.   Marie says, as they were crossing, they were up to their necks in water. There was a movement of rock underneath, and even after all these years, she can still feel a rock rolling away. Frightened, she and Bob turned back, but my brother Francie was delivered into the power of the current, unable to swim. Francie remembers Marie trying to extend to him a piece of barbed wire to save him, a rescue effort that proved futile.

      They watched with horror as Francie was swept away by the high water. My sister says our Collie dog Buster sensed the danger, and raced alongside the creek bank.  More than once Francie went under and was submerged, as he struggled to keep from drowning.  He thought he was a goner and was getting a warm feeling under the water.  But, suddenly, he felt his foot touch something beneath the flow, and the next thing he remembers is that he was on the nearby road, on higher ground, away from the force of the floodwater.  Marie, who witnessed it with a great sense of relief, says he came out on pasture ground where the creek bent.

       How he got out of the creek, sopping wet that day, he doesn't recall.  Whether he rescued himself, or the dog helped in some way is not remembered.  What is remembered is Buster was with him, running alongside the creek.

       I have to wonder whether his guardian angel intervened, buoying him up when he went under and bringing his foot upon something, perhaps part of a bank that gave way.   Like so much of the past, so many details seem to be swept away from memory.  We're glad Francie wasn't swept away from earth, on that day so long ago.  

       My brother is now 82 years old, and no longer lives up on Polly Butte.  There's a sad note to this, for he was swept away, from off his hill and down to the valley floor below, by a flood of medical costs.  He took his wife Bunnie to the emergency room of the hospital where she died six days later. The insurance said it wasn't pre-approved.  It seems to me an emergency shouldn't require preapproval and there could've been compassion and understanding of the circumstances that followed.  There were thousands of dollars of hospital costs, some of which he was billed for twice.  Not rich, he was paying the hospital $100 a week, but that wasn't good enough for them.  They wanted it all and threatened to put a lien on his property.  He sold it, paid the hospital off, and now lives in a mobile home.  There may've been other reasons to eventually come down from off his hill, but he shouldn't have been pushed off like this.  In recent years he heard from someone who worked there, that there was a high percentage of people who did not pay for treatment, but they charged others.

       Not long after Francie left Polly Butte with sorrow in his heart, Sam stepped in some antifreeze, licked his paw to clean it, and sadly from then on Sam went downhill, physically.  He died blind. 

       Francie has had his losses, but he keeps his spirits buoyed up.  He says you can't be like the bird who flies backward; you can't do anything about where you've been; just turn around and see where you're going.    He still misses Polly Butte, but he lives with the reality of now and of memories of time gone by.  One of those memories is of Sam, Sam with him amid the rocks of Polly Butte.  Sam will always be in his heart. 

                                                                                                            ― John Riedell
Note: The underlined word bridge is a text link to another story.                   
*  For more on Keith Yoakum, see the poetry site,, Ones So Brave and His Wingman (and the text link one).
Keith died a hero's death, when his Apache helicopter was brought down over Iraq on February 2nd, 2007

More pictures of Polly Butte







      After a lingering illness, Francie died on February 15, 2014, and was buried with military honors near March Air Force Base, in California. He would've been 86 this coming December 4th.―
JR, May 16. 2014

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                                                                            Site Last Updated on 05/16/14