24 December 2012

Scenes from a Reading of Dog-eared Children's Books

Photo: Dinko Ibukic/DinkoDesign.com
Save for the promise of a babe in a barn, one would be hard-pressed to conceive a more incongruous congregation: A troupe of traveling actors, a pack of puppies, and a muttering of children who have, on this misty gray Saturday morning, in a military museum filled with guns and planes, gathered together to share stories and songs.

Making her introductions, Paws & Effect Executive Director Nicole Shumate remembers the day before, an ugly and unthinkable and nearly unspeakable day, but only in passing. "Considering yesterday's events," she says, "I can't think of a better way to spend my day today, spending a little time with some kids." Her voice cracks a little, and so do we.

Photo: Todd Cerveris
The troupers hail from the national tour of "War Horse," which is playing later that afternoon at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines. It is a theatrical play that celebrates, among other themes, the connections among humans and animals. It was also a movie. Before that, it was a book for young people.

The off-duty actors have answered an early call, but gamely rouse the crowd with a boisterous tune from the show. Written by John Tams, it appears as "Wheel of Fortune" on the soundtrack. People are just likely to recognize it, however, as "(When We Go) Rolling Home." It is stirring stuff, better than coffee:
Round goes the wheel of fortune, don't be afraid to ride
There's a land of milk and honey waits on the other side
There'll be peace and there'll be plenty, you'll never need to roam
When we go rolling home, when we go rolling home

After the song, the performers focus on their floor-bound audience, eagerly taking turns to read aloud three children's books. At times, it is difficult to discern who is having more fun: the kids, the readers, or the occasional errant pup who crashes in among both.

Photo: Todd Cerveris
In addition to training psychiatric service animals for wounded military veterans, Paws & Effects helps train Reading Education Assistance Dog ("READ") teams—humans and animals that help with literacy efforts. Indeed, some of the children and dogs present have met before, during pre-event arts activities at the Civic Center's annual series of family-centered performances.

Appropriately, on this day, the selected books each speak to human-animal themes, against backdrops of war and sacrifice:

First, "Scuttlebutt Goes to War," a childhood favorite of mine. The 1943 picture book is the true story a dog who is wounded in World War II, and adopted by sailors and Marines. Scuttlebutt gets his name from the wheeled apparatus he uses to get around temporarily, having been injured.

Even as a kid, I apparently enjoyed military punnery. And stories about dogs in service.

Then, "Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope," which tells how a horse from Iowa becomes a key part in honoring soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

Finally, "14 Cows for America," the story of how, following the attacks of September 11, a tribe in Kenya sought to comfort Americans with the gift of its most treasured possessions.

Between stories, more songs: "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain," then "This Land is Your Land."

Scientists grandly speak of a unified theory of forces, attractions that bind and connect all that is, from planet to particle. Some are strong forces. Some are weak. The way I understand it, some of the smallest are also the strongest, responsible for binding together such fundamental bits as protons and electrons. And, no doubt, snakes, snails, and puppy dog tails.

Even during the holidays, one need not look far to know that there is pain in the world. And hurt. And evil. But there is also peace—a peace that can be found in belly rubs and cocked ears, eager listeners and cradled babes.

Remember this, where'er the wheel of fortune takes you this holiday season: Every moment is a present. Every story, a gift.

Photo: Todd Cerveris

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