It was a foggy November morning, and I was a bit groggy as I rolled out of bed. A late night had taken its toll, and the last thing I wanted was to go out into the cold. But as is my daily routine, I had to walk our dog, Country. So I grabbed a jacket and went outside to the yard.
Country, it turns out, was nowhere in sight. I called his name, but got no response. Listened for his jingle, but there was just silence. Then I noticed the hole under the gate, and the board ripped from the fence. Country had escaped, and only God knew where he was.
That was Nov. 2, six months after my family relocated from South Florida to Columbus for my husband to pursue a job opportunity. Country, a Shepherd-Spaniel mix, had joined our family in July, and helped us adapt to our new life on the south side of town.
My daughters had fallen in love with the dog, who greeted them daily with a wagging tail when they returned from school. They had wanted a dog for years, and our move to Columbus presented the perfect opportunity.
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Country became the girls' walking companion, frisky friend and a guinea pig for all their gadgets from Petco. They were looking forward to Christmas so they could dress him in a Santa suit and take photos in front of the fireplace. But now he was gone.
Country's disappearance set in motion a desperate six-week search, with the help of several of our new neighbors. It brought strangers together, broke down barriers and exercised our faith, paving the way for the dog's long journey home -- just in time for Christmas.
It also shattered many of the stereotypes I had heard about south Columbus.
The big move
You see, moving to a new town wasn't easy. There were many things to consider. At the top of the list was finding a place to live temporarily while we got the lay of the land. So we turned to the Internet, and after searching for some time, found a nice home in south Columbus. It had everything we wanted -- spacious quarters, an affordable price and a peaceful atmosphere.
But as we looked online for more information about Columbus, we discovered a dividing line between north and south. South Columbus was associated with blight and crime, according to some of the Internet posts, and north Columbus was considered "the good side of town."
Some people suggested we would be crazy to live anywhere south of Macon Road. Others set the dividing line at exit 10 off Interstate 185.
This, of course, is nothing new. I had experienced neighborhood profiling before, having lived and worked as a journalist in New York, Omaha, Neb., and South Florida. Entire neighborhoods written off due to ethnicity and socio-economic conditions, many times unfairly. Here we go again, I thought to myself, another stereotyped black community.
But I've also lived long enough to know there are some elements of truth to most stereotypes. So, I proceeded cautiously as we settled into our new home, always looking for the telltale signs of a declining neighborhood -- things like lawn maintenance, litter and the condition of area businesses.
I noticed bars on the windows of the Twins Food Mart on St. Marys Road, and suspected crime might be an issue. But there were positive signs, too. The store had a steady stream of business, which signaled a vibrant community. Men took the time to say "good morning" and hold the door for female customers. (That doesn't happen everywhere I've lived, trust me. Guess it's that Southern hospitality I've always heard about.)
I also observed families exercising at a nearby park, as well as many neighbors taking pride in their properties. And I concluded that the area along St. Marys Road was like most working-class neighborhoods where people just wanted a decent quality of life. Much like the community where I grew up in Brooklyn.
So we settled in the area, and for several months lived practically drama free.
(OK, so there was one altercation in the neighborhood where someone got hurt. But family disputes can happen anywhere. Right?)
Then Country entered our lives and turned everything upside down.
A desperate search
How did we find Country? He is a dog that had been rescued four years ago by some friends living on a farm in Alabama. He is a shy pooch, who doesn't take well to strangers. But he has an adorable face, and a big heart.
(As the story goes, Country, after discovering food, also brought his friend, Rex, to the farm to partake. The two had been living on the property ever since, along with other dogs our friends rescued.)
We agreed to adopt Country, and took him from the country to his new city life.
For the most part, Country adapted well to his new environment. But he had a penchant for digging and sniffing female dogs in the neighborhood. On at least one other occasion, he tried to run away, but we found him hiding behind the back fence.
When we discovered Country's disappearance on Nov. 2, I immediately created a flier to distribute throughout the neighborhood. Prior to that, we had had little contact with our neighbors. Most stuck to themselves, and seemed preoccupied with their own lives.
But when we started passing out the fliers, the neighborhood came to life. Two women, living on either side of us, said they were touched by Country's story. They volunteered to drive around the neighborhood and look for the dog.
I asked the manager at Twins Food Mart if I could post a flier in the window, and he agreed. The tale of the missing dog caught people's attention. And on Thanksgiving Day I received a call from a woman who said she cried when she read it. She was praying for our family and would look for the dog in her neighborhood.
In addition to distributing fliers, we also checked the animal control website daily, and called local vets and animal rescue organizations. We patrolled nearby streets for several weeks. But Country was nowhere to be found, and we just continued to pray earnestly for his return.
The approaching holiday
As we got closer to Christmas, my daughters decorated the mantel and Christmas tree in our family room. With holiday music permeating the house, and the fireplace adorned with twinkling colors, we tried hard as we could to kindle the Christmas spirit. But something was definitely wrong.
"Looks like he's not coming back," my husband said to me one night. "We'll just have to get the kids another dog."
That was Dec. 5, 20 days before Christmas.
Then the next day, I was sitting at the library working on a research project. My phone began to buzz, and there was a woman on the other line. She identified herself as Shuronica Lakes Davis, and said she had seen the flier at the Twins Food Mart. She believed she knew where Country was located.
"Is it a boy dog?" she asked.
"Yes!" I answered enthusiastically.
"Green collar?" she probed even further.
"Yes. Do you know where he is?"
By now, my heart was pounding inside. But I tried not to get my hopes up too high. Didn't want to be disappointed.
Davis said she had seen a dog that looked like Country in a neighborhood behind Macon Road, where she owned a rental property.
She was on her way back to the food mart to get the flier so she could see if it was the same dog.
As she spoke, I couldn't believe my ears. Could it be possible that Country could return after all these weeks, just in time for Christmas? And what are the chances that a woman with rental property in a totally different neighborhood would see the poster at Twins Food Mart? And why would she even care? It just seemed unbelievable, especially since my husband and I had just made up our minds to replace the dog the night before.
But just as she promised, Davis called me back with her assessment. "Ma'am, I found your dog," she said. "You need to come and get him as soon as you can."
My husband met Davis at the location, and sure enough it was Country. A man had him locked in a cage. When Country saw my husband, he wagged his tail as if nothing had happened, then jumped into our van to go home.
Now, he's back safe and sound with our family. And we have pictures in his Santa suit to prove it.
I asked Davis why she was so willing to help us find Country. She said her family lost a dog once, and tried hard as they could to find it. When they discovered its whereabouts, it was too late. The dog had been hit by a car, taken to the pound and put to sleep. Davis' children were devastated and she didn't want my children to experience the same thing.
Davis said she prayed and fasted the morning before she found Country. She asked God to use her in a special way, and he answered her prayers.
Well, lucky for us, there are people like Davis in south Columbus willing to be used by God and help their neighbors -- shattering stereotypes along the way. Through them, we witnessed a Christmas miracle.
And for that, we'll always be grateful.
--Alva James-Johnson, Special to the Ledger-Enquirer