Cow Pies

Posting stories of my childhood memories on Washburn Island, Lake Scugog is one of my interests. For 60 years, from the 1930s to 1990s there were at varying times five family cottages on the island. We lost my cousin Ronnie Baker in a tragic accident on Washburn Island in 1957. This first story introduces you to Ronnie. The legend at the bottom of the page locates the Baker cottage beside The Point on the west side of Wakeford Rd.

Ronnie standing beside Aunt May Hamlett c. 1954

Ronnie standing beside Aunt May Hamlett c. 1954

Cow Pies

Ronnie’s voice, high-pitched and excited, says, “Percy’s got a bloody bull at the farm!”

“You said ‘bloody’,” says seven-year-old cousin Phyllis.

Ronnie grins, and steps out a crisp military turn, a skinny eleven-year-old with bare feet pressed into the sandy ruts to Percy’s farm. Five girl cousins straggle out from under a cool cedar canopy to form ranks, awaiting orders.

Ronnie straightens his boney shoulders, flattens a stripped cedar walking stick under a bent left arm, and announces, “Right turn into the woods. Follow me, men.” Then he marches forward to the humming of the Colonel Bogey March, an inspirational march created in WWI to inspire British military fortitude.

Sadly today I know the same music is a popular theme song for the movie The Bridge On the River Kwai released in 195–but Ronnie will die before it’s release. The version Ronnie hums in 1954 he learned from his father’s collection of long-playing records ordered from all over the world. Ronnie’s not allowed to touch the records or the gramophone, but Uncle Harrie makes sure his kids listen to expensive international recordings of marches, operas, and classical music.

All the girl cousins

From left at the Baker Cottage: with back to the camera, Aunt Nora (or possibly my mum), Viv Burrows, Aunt May Hamlett, seated is me, my father jesting in a chef’s get-up, cousin Terry, her sister Phyllis, Ronnie’s sister Susie, my sisters, Maeve and Barb.

A file of girl-soldiers set off after Ronnie, ages ranging from six to eleven. Cedar boughs slap and scratch, but we happily troop behind our leader–and the only boy. When Phyllis won’t let go of his swear word and threatens to tell on him he pivots and commands, “no God-damn insubordination.”

“Twice. I’m telling,” she says.

Noisy chipmunks chase in the damp soil and kick up dried cedar droppings. My sister Barb, who is six months older than Ronnie, ranks next in the chain of command, but only comes to real power when Ronnie chooses to hang around with the uncles and leaves the girls to plan their own play.

“A God-damn bloody bull,” he says to Barb as she dodges low-slung cedar branches.

“Don’t swear,” she says, looking to see if the little ones have heard him swear again — and we have.

Mosquitoes attack exposed skin, made sweaty from humidity locked inside the forest. We swat at them and scratch tiny raised bumps on necks and legs.

“Cow pies,” Ronnie shrills, stopping beside a circular splat of brown muck.

Squeamish girls break ranks behind him, peering around each other to see the cow pies, erupting  “Eeewww” sounds, fingers clamped to noses.

“Fresh, too,” he says, grinning at my sister Barb, his best pal.

She wrinkles her nose and skirts the circle, saying, “C’mon, let’s go.”

“Who’s gonna jump in?” Ronnie challenges.

I’m second youngest of the gawking girls sweating and swatting beside the cow pies, but I know what might come next and I’m not budging.

“No takers?” he scoffs, looking at the faces of disbelievers. “Chickens.”

Ronnie pumps his arms, bends his knees – “One … two … three …” He lifts a perfect barefoot, standing-long-jump smack in the center of a smelly brown cow pie.

Little girls run in all directions, squealing and looking back at the laughing boy who has splashes of pooh coating feet and ankles.

“That was stupid,” said Barb, but she laughs because he laughs — at least he laughs until he has a hard time scraping off the filth.

It’s one of the first times I remember wishing I was a boy. I wished Mum wouldn’t yell at me if she heard that I jumped in pooh. I wished I were brave and naughty and laughing at pooh squishing through my toes.

We detour long enough for Ronnie to wash his feet in the warm shallows of the lake. No longer, soldiers, we tramp out of the trees onto the sandy road to the farm.

Phyllis told the adults about Ronnie’s swearing when we got back. As soon as we’d blurted out about the bull sighting, Ronnie’s cow-pie-stomp loomed large in our tale too. The bull sighting got a lot more attention from our parents.

“Was he in the barn? Tied up, or chained up? Did Percy let you in the barn? Don’t go there again.”

But the disgusting act of cow-pie-jumping didn’t seem to diminish Ronnie in anyone’s eyes. Ronnie good-naturedly chirped back at the teasing uncles who called him, ‘Simpleton, and Clodhopper.’

As the years pass, I’m aware of how much everyone liked Ronnie, my Dad especially. I can tell by the way he teases Ronnie about being a muscle man, even when at thirteen the boy is slight but wiry. Step-N-Fetch-It, Dad calls him. Ronnie responds by retrieving tools and lumber, eager to please. He hangs around the jocular company of uncles, telling jokes, listening to their stories. And he charms the aunts by helping set up tea under the elm tree in the front yard, or minds the little ones near the shore.

Ronnie is first to have a radio of his own. I don’t understand then why he and Barb choose to go into Aunt Nora’s cottage on a sunny day just to hover close to static, listening for rock ‘n roll tunes, like Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog. But the two are past the age of making clay ashtrays at the shoreline with the younger kids.

Until July of 1957, there was a sense of being safe at Washburn Island, like growing up inside a cocoon. Summer breezes and sheets of blue sky lulled us to complacency. We can’t know that soon a change in the weather will smash the cocoon to the ground and change our innocent reflections of childhood on the island.

Map Photo


Botanical Artist – Maeve Hughes

Trout Lilies by Maeve Hughes Honourable Mention March 2014

Trout Lilies by Maeve Hughes
Honourable Mention March 2014

In April 2013, my sister, Maeve Hughes, and I crawled on hands and knees in local woodlands to photograph one of our favourite spring plants, the Trout Lily.

We did the same thing when we were kids on Washburn Island — but without a camera. Our mum, Vera Burrows, loved our little bouquets of wildflowers, putting them in cheap glass vases she probably bought at Stedmans, or maybe Woolworth in Lindsay.

In early spring, the appearance of the trout lily is followed by yellow and purple violets. Farmer Bowen’s maple forest was our closest woodland shelter for early spring specimens. The forest was mere steps from the end of our driveway on what is now Sugar Bush Trail. Back in the 50s, it was a narrow track with a few cottages dotting the shoreline.

As a botanical artist today, Maeve uses this photographic memory to help create watercolour paintings, or coloured pencil drawings. Her interest in nature, and a natural artistic talent from a young age are factors in her success as a Botantical Artist. All of those romps around trails, fields and shorelines of Washburn Island, with accompanying wet feet, sunburns and burrs stuck to our clothes contributed to Maeve’s love of wildflowers, waterlilies, berries, and all growing things.

Toronto’s Todmorden Mills Papermill Gallery featured The Botanical Artists of Canada Juried Art Show titled The Four Seasons. Jurors selected 64 outstanding works for the exhibition by artists from Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

My sister achieved placement in the show for four of her juried submissions in the Watercolour category.

Fiddleheads by Maeve Hughes Honourable Mention March 2014

Fiddleheads by Maeve Hughes
Honourable Mention March 2014

(See Maeve’s Coloured Pencil winning entry, Rosehips, from the show November 2012). This year she earned 2 Honourable Mentions for Trout Lilies and Fiddleheads. Recognition for her work makes crawling around the damp woodlands in the chilly spring worthwhile.

Months of preparation by the executive and membership of Botanical Artists of Canada paid off. The heritage venue, Todmorden Mills, is an excellent locale for hosting an art show of this calibre. A record-breaking number of guests at the opening reception enjoyed a buzzing ambiance and delicious food and refreshments.






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From literary magazine Geist: Fact and Fiction, Summer 2012.

Claudia Cornwall’s essay titled That Beautifully Unworldly, Reasonless Rampaging of My Old Self resonated with me about complex memories of summers at Washburn Island. 1956 traveller, Curt Lang wrote in his diary:

The past is always so alive. It encroaches like a green tide on every hour and day, breeding a sadness in everything. A summer sun reminds me of lost summer suns, the rain of misspent days.

And two days he writes:

All the usual discontents and doubts banging around inside.

The imagery elicited a strong emotional connection with me, something that I could not have identified at the same age he was when he so casually wrote his impressions in his diary.

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You Can Never Go Back

Percy and Edythe Wakeford’s farm today. Once a lively place with typical farm critters, and a warm welcome from the childless couple who loved summer visitors and sold eggs and vegetables to them.

Prepare for disappointments when you return to a place that meant a lot to you as a kid. In your absence, progress advances, disguising your landmark memories with modernity or neglect.

For the current residents of Washburn Island, the narrow dusty tracks that rimmed Lake Scugog now have metal signposts with designated street names and house numbers: paved and wide enough for two cars to pass. It’s comforting to know that three of the street names honour the farming families that lived on the island from the beginning of cottage-ing in the early 1900s until today (Wakeford, Bowen & Grill).

The island is about 300 acres, with some of its land-locked centre under cultivation still. When I was a baby in ’47 (first visit at 3 weeks old), there were probably about 30 cottages on the sunny west side facing the larger Scugog Island where the Blue Heron Casino attracts visitors today. Farmer Percy Wakeford parcelled off 50-ft. lots during the ’30s depression, perhaps because he made more money selling land than he made for low-priced yields in a desperate rural economy.

Within weeks of building basic structures, most clad with Manitoba maple, cottagers cut down cedars trees, constructing branch fences as barricades against Percy’s wandering cows and horses. My parents told stories of four-legged creatures nosing up against their screened windows. I recall brown horses hanging their heads over the cedar fence at my grandparents’ cottage. Mum taught us to hold sugar cubes on our palms and let the horses squeeze them off our palms with rubbery lips.

Looking south from my Humphries grandparents’ cottage to the fronts of my Burrows grandparents’ and aunt and uncle’s waterfront beside The Point. High water in the Trent System ate up the beach and eroded some of the property at the shore.

Often when swimming in the soupy waters we’d look a hundred feet south at The Point. Percy’s cows cooled themselves ankle-deep in the lake beside the last remnant of unsold pasture at the water’s edge.

Before the Trent System raised water levels, a 20-foot sandy beach stretched around the west side, anchored by large boulders cleared to make way for crops in pioneer times. The sandy beach below a shallow bluff was our playground, a place of sand castles and moats, a rocky ledge for sun-baking ashtrays molded from clay found close to shore, a place for a narrow wooden dock and a cumbersome rowboat Gran ordered from Eaton’s catalogue .

In the early ’50s, I had two sets of grandparents with cottages one lot apart, a great-aunt and uncle with a cottage “down the line,” and an aunt and uncle’s cottage beside The Point. Each unique cottage was a place for me to visit, to get a drink of water, a biscuit, to celebrate with a fire at night, marshmallows on a stick, a place to find an outhouse, a place to pump a well. Each cottage had clusters of relatives and their visiting friends. Each parent knew they were providing something special for their kids, something they couldn’t have dreamed of in England from where they came.

Every cottager had a well and pump. This is all that remains of Farmer Wakeford’s pump. I remember swinging on the gate that opened to their property from the narrow dusty road.

It’s gone now. Other peoples’ memories are progressing at Washburn Island. Percy and Edythe Wakeford moved and shortly after died nearly 40 years ago. Gran Humphries died in 1970, and Gramp hung on for a few years, but the loneliness and upkeep overwhelmed him and he sold. My aunt took over Grandma Burrows’ cottage, but her husband died and with uninterested teenagers, she sold. Her sister who’d owned the cottage beside The Point reconsidered the long drive from Toronto’s west end, and the tragedy that affected them personally on the island, and sold too. By the early 70s, the only cottage left was the lot my parents bought from Farmer Bowen in ’56. They sold it in ’91, preferring travel to cottage maintenance. Sixty years of memories ended with my own children barely able to recollect our rare visits.

There are hundreds of homes on the island now. New roads with names like Sugar Bush Trail. I took pictures of the old cottages two weeks ago, transformed though they are, some in good ways, some by neglect.

You can never go back. You feel like you’ve been robbed of something precious.

Legend for Old Washburn Island

Legend for Old Washburn Island


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A Boy’s Cottage Diary 1904

A Boy’s Cottage Diary 1904

A friend loaned me a book she’d come across in her research for her husband’s family, A Boy’s Cottage Diary 1904 annotated by Larry Turner. Because my grandparents on both sides of my family came out of the same era, although a few years later, I was curious about how they afford to buy a cottages on Washburn Island Lake Scugog at the height of the Depression in the 30s. My family was working class, as were most families in Canada at the time. It mystified me that they could buy cottages when there was chronic unemployment in Canada. If their stories of hardship are true, there wasn’t a dime to spare in the household.

The 1904 diary was originally penned by 16-year old Fred Dickinson. Fred lived in Kemptville, Ontario, north of Kingston. For one month in the summer of 1904, Fred and three young men set up a tent on his grandmother’s cottage property, Sunnybanks, which was adjacent to the lower lock at Beveridges Bay on Lower Rideau Lake, one of the chain of Rideau Lakes that formed the headwaters of the historic Rideau Canal in Eastern Ontario. His adventures of early cottage life are intriguing. Author Larry Turner ‘s grandfather was Fred’s younger brother.

Although my father was only 16 years old when his family purchased a cottage on Washburn Island, he believed that as an immigrant family in Canada for 7 years, they wanted to emulate Canadians who believed in the Canadian dream of owning a summer place. All very nice and neat as an explanation, but still a little baffling.

Larry Turner’s book A Boy’s Cottage Diary 1904 goes a long way to helping me understand the idea of cottaging in that era. Many readers may have experienced Ontario cottage life, and recognize its uniqueness to our culture. Cottages pass down the generations in many families, and with the passing down of property there is the passing down of collective memories and family lore, knowledge of the community and tall tales. If you’ve experienced a tradition of cottaging, the following insights will ring true for you.

Insights from Larry Turner:

  • The whole place evokes a living tradition in sense, smell and texture. Pictures, artifacts, furniture, tools, games, books, blankets, plates and the dim light fixtures are constant reminders of family tradition.
  • Where the nuclear families of the 20th century have scattered across the country following the lures of opportunity and the reality of employment, old family cottages have become those places, like gatherings at Christmas, where the family congregates once again.
  • Cottages have become family anchors, shared experiences, keeping the ties that bind.
  • Where urban environments are subject to change, renewal, and displacement, the concept of the rural, the pastoral and cottage country have come to define a sense of place and meaning. It is this sense of a cultural landscape, rather than specific buildings, trees and lakes, that seems to resonate among cottage country activists.
  • … the sheer magnitude and necessity of creating a pastoral landscape out of the original wilderness … encouraged a love-hate relationship with the land. … visitors were acutely aware of the romantic and picturesque qualities of the uncultivated panorama.
  • The accessible, controlled, and serviceable lakelands of the southern Canadian Shield emerged as “cottage country,” a comfortable compromise between the search for wildness while clinging to civilization.
  • The lumbering frontier had moved into the new north above Lake Nipissing, leaving a near north to be manipulated in a new romance of the woods.
  • Being in cottage country or having northern experiences became part of what was seen as the developing Canadian character symbolized by energy, strength, health, purity, and self-reliance. The lakes, rivers and forest of the Shield provided a fertile patch of land on which to help define an authentic national legacy, the celebration of personal character, and a vigorous vision for the future.
  • According to Witold Rybczynski, “The idea of having a ‘place in the country’ probably entered human consciousness at the same time as people began living in cities. It was a reaction to the constraints of the rules and regulations that governed behaviour in urban society, and was also a way to temporarily escape the curbs that city living inevitably put on the individual.”
  • The purpose of having a cottage had little to do with the kinds of experiences one gets visiting new places, but was a kind of inward journey, to discover self, nature, and unhindered relaxation.
  • Increased affluence, discretionary time, and more efficient access to the lakelands opened up opportunities once limited by the rhythms of work, time and space. … but in the towns and cities experiencing increasing industrialization time away from bustling work-lives offered a new horizon, especially with the widespread use of Saturday afternoons for relaxation.  At the turn-of-the-century, this was the beginning of the concept of the weekend.
  • The first decade of the 20th century extended the widespread notion that as the  economy changed and the twin focus of urbanization and industrialization shifted families way from traditional farm labour, a new class of children, known as adolescents, were unprepared, marginalized, and vulnerable in their new setting. … there was concern that town and  city living led to idleness delinquency and worse.
  • Youth camping was seen as a means to toughen children from non-farm settings where it was believed that, in a natural environment, they would learn useful skills when schools were closed for summer vacation.
  • Outdoor activities brought people closer to lakes, and encouraged a tradition of Ontario camping and cottaging that continues to define summer vacation from many families.
  • Where public excursions, picnics, and resorts required a degree of middle-class respectability and deportment, camps, cottages, and boats allowed greater personal freedom and brought the home into the venue of the lake and forest. The cottage and boat excited the individualist and family-oriented notion of retreat and solitude from everyday life.
Think back on your experiences of Ontario cottaging. I’m sure the insights resonate with what a cottage means to you and your family and friends.
A Boy’s Cottage Diary 1904 by Larry Turner (Petherwin Heritage, Ottawa)

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Bill Duncan’s Washburn Island Memories

Bill Duncan is 92 years old. That alone is a great accomplishment. Bill shared a couple of Washburn Island stories with me. He’d been a friend to my dad in Toronto in the ’30s, and it’s because my grandfather helped his father build their Washburn Island cottage that my grandparents located there later in 1936. When the Duncan family sold their cottage on the island after the war, the families gradually lost touch. I wish my dad could know that we’ve reunited two families through our interest in Washburn Island. Read Bill’s funny stories below, stories I happily shared with my dad’s sisters, May and Sheila, who have fond memories of the relationship between of the two families.

Bill Duncan Bio:

  • Born Jan 18, 1920
  • Grew up in Beach District in Toronto
  • Attended Adam Beck Public School
  • Attended Malvern Collegiate, where he played football and hockey
  • Graduated from U of T in Mining Engineering
  • While at U of T, played more football and hockey
  • In early war years played football for Balmy Beach, which was a member of the Big Four and which had won the Grey Cup a couple of times
  • He and his wife, Marion, are members of the Peterborough Golf and Country Club where he still plays golf and has shot his age about thirty-five times – several times this year
  • For several years he was a director with the Ontario Cottagers Association
  • Has a cottage in the Kawarthas, built 1972, is a Past President of the Eels Lake Cottagers Association and was a director for many years
  • Spent 4 years in the Canadian Army with Service in Canada, Great Britain, Italy, France and Germany
  • Checkered Engineering career and retired in 1985
  • He and Marion play duplicate bridge and have many friends in that field
  • They have two children, a son and a daughter, and two grandsons

Read Bill’s entertaining stories below the legend. The Duncan Cottage was on Wakeford Road between # 13 and #14.

Legend for Old Washburn Island

Canada Geese

Hiding the Evidence, by Bill Duncan

Long ago, on Washburn Island in the land of Scugog, the Duncan cottage had a cedar strip boat equipped with a 4.7 Muncie outboard motor. The captain of the craft was Billy Duncan, the oldest teenaged son. Because he owned the boat, Bill Duncan Senior, with Billy at the helm, had prior rights for fishing in Starr’s Bay or at Bowen’s Seven acres.

Otherwise, the boat’s use was for recreational purposes: incidental trips to Caesarea where there was an ice-cream parlor and pinball machines, and even a dance hall. The boat was in demand to carry people to the annual regatta at Caesarea, to take part in swimming races and watch the sea fleas charge around. The passengers were usually Ken, Don and Fred (The Joker).

In the middle of Lake Scugog is a huge island composed of farms and an Indian Reservation [Scugog Island]. In recent years the natives have built themselves a large money-making casino.

One day in late August the usual gang made a trip across the lake to Scugog Island and landed in a clearing. After beaching the boat, the gang traipsed ashore, and confronted a gaggle of domestic geese led by a bad-tempered gander who visciously hissed and pecked Bill on the leg. In self-defense Bill picked up a handy stick and wacked the gander on the neck. The gander did not enjoy this treatment and promptly collapsed in a heap.

Panic!! Panic! What to do? What to do?

We held a hasty conference. Afraid of being confronted by angry natives or furious farmers, the gang picked up the carcass and returned at full throttle to the Duncan cottage. But their problems were not over. Mrs. Duncan would not cook a goose for a gang of thieves – the word would get out – what would the neighbours think? – it was against the law, etc. However, the silver-tongued Billy convinced his mother that the evidence needed destroying, and eating the bird would be very efficient. The bird was plucked, drawn, made ready for the oven and a feast was laid on for the following day.

The next day the gang of thieves, with a few special guests, assembled at the Duncan cottage while the goose was cooking. With the table set, a pleasant aroma filled the room as the bird sizzled in the oven.

Suddenly there was a pounding on the back door of the cottage.

“Open up! Open up! This is the O.P.P. We have received a complaint from farmer Jones.”

Mrs. Duncan, the chief cook, turned pale and clutched her throat. There was a sudden silence throughout the room. About 30 second later, Fred (the Joker) appeared at the back door with a big smile on his face. There was a joint sigh-of-relief from the feasters who then set about destroying the evidence. However, Fred (The Joker) dropped steeply on Mrs. Duncan’s popularity list.

All the above is true.


My dad, Bob Burrows and Len Hamlett with homemade sailboat on Washburn Island, 1940s

A Second Life for the White Punt, by Bill Duncan

Long ago on Washburn Island in the Land of Scugog, the Duncans owned a white punt, which had been built to receive a sail – but had no sail. 

Bill Duncan, the oldest son at 15, accepted this challenge. Percy Wakeford, the local farmer, had a huge cedar bush only steps away. Thus, armed with a blunt hatchet, Billy cut down and trimmed two trees of the proper size, and using canvas from an old tent, fashioned a sail of sorts.

Shortly afterwards it was clear that sailing the white punt without a centre board did not work satisfactorily. Under sail the boat did not go where intended.

Billy resorted to rowing the punt to mid lake, hoisting the sail, and charging with the wind back to harbour.  As this practice consumed much energy the white punt resumed its normal function for fishing, etc.

However, the Duncans were a careless lot and did not look after the punt. The bottom began to rot.  It became a leaky punt, pulled up on the shore to await a natural death.

At some point,  a smiling May Burrows [Mary E. McIntyre’s aunt and daughter of her grandparents who had a cottage on the island] approached us and asked if she could have the punt for a flower box. Of course she could.  With difficulty and much bailing the boat was rowed to the Burrows cottage at the point.  A few days later, what appeared on the horizon but a buoyant white punt rowed by a smiling May Burrows. The Burrows boys [Mary E. McIntyre’s father Bob, grandfather Sam, and uncle Syd] had been busy. The bottom was removed, the sides planed down to remove the rot, and the bottom replaced with new lumber. Voila – a new boat.

I will cherish forever the saga of the white punt and have only exaggerated a little.


Map Photo

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From the Cottage Porch Cable TV Interview

As Seen on TV

If anyone predicted a year ago that I’d appear on Rogers Cable TV show, Daytime, because of a story I’d written about our dog Cookie at Washburn Island, I’d have laughed out loud. But it happened on June 13.

I have company for this performance: James Dewar, President of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region. We are two of many authors that Jessica Outram of Sunshine in a Jar Press selected for the anthology From The Cottage Porch.

I’m not nervous in the Green Room until a very nice lady puts a mic up my shirt. In Oshawa, Roger’s Green Room is a spare office with two bright green couches, a coffee machine and a gallery of local awards covering the walls. I realize that I haven’t thought much about what is about to occur. I wonder what will happen if James doesn’t show up – or how James will feel if he catches sight of me driving off before show time.

Lights – Camera – Action!

I push aside thoughts of public speaking phobias and dry mouth syndrome long enough to enjoy the moment. James arrives, we warm up by conversing about our cottage experiences, which is like runners stretching before a race. We’re escorted to the studio, and given no time to back out, or be sick. Two interviewers, Chris and Amy, two guests, James and Mary, a crescent-shaped table with stools — lights – camera – action!

Our dog, a beagle named Cookie, rolled in dead fish before we left Washburn Island to go back to Scarborough. For dog lovers who live near water, you already know the odour on the snout of your dogs when they revel in a fish carcass on shore. My story is about my father’s reactions to sharing a car ride with a foul smelling beagle.

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