Inspection- Why I Love Albert Payson Terhune
In the next few weeks we’ll be taking a break, sort of, from politics. This week we will be honoring a writer from the turn of the previous century. Note: many of the pictures for this column are from a marvelous site owned by Paul Bradican. If you want to learn more it’s a great resource.
Written by Ken Carman with help from Judy Leathers and Paul Bradican
Lad: one of the most famous dogs in history. Picture gifted to public domain by Anice Terhune from Albert Payson Terhune’s estate. All pictures either Wiki or courtesy www.sunnybankcollies.us/ and www.math.ttu.edu/~wlewis/terhune.html: two websites well worth the visit.
In 1963 I was a third grader visiting the public library with my class, though it could have been 62 and second grade; memory being what it is. I’m not sure what attracted me to the book, but most likely it was because our dog Lucky just died. I think I was born with a passion for dogs, or at least into a family with a passion for dogs. I was always trying to make friends with my less than kid friendly, elderly, grouchy grandparent’s dog… Penny. Penny never bit me, unlike Lucky who was never all that “lucky” and bit everyone.
This is why I claim I may have been born with a passion for dogs: considering all I just mentioned I could have been scared of them.
I came home from the Nyack Public Library that day with Lad: a Dog, by Albert Payson Terhune. Soon I was buying his books with money I earned from mowing lawns and working at Mrs. Nolan’s corner store in Upper Nyack, NY. I didn’t earn a lot, so it took a while to buy each one… and sometimes took all I earned in a week. Since these books were fanciful re-re-releases, they’re probably not “collectibles.” Especially since a few have stains on the pages after visiting “the candy store” at Pathfinder: a Baptist camp near Cooperstown, NY. This was my reading material when everyone was supposed to go back to their cabins and rest mid-afternoons. The other campers read comic books or talked when they weren’t supposed to. To this day I have a moderate collection, including one of two books by Anice, his wife.
Albert Payson Terhune wasn’t just a collie author. From newspaper reporter to books on various topics, including mythology, he commented on just about everything in life; whatever he wrote. And he had a habit of including personal details that many authors didn’t in such books.
He taught me so much: both intentionally and unintentionally, like there’s always something a little ironic about how someone dies. I remember reading in his books how he loathed what automobiles had done to our culture. While there were other reasons for why he passed on, his downhill slide was most likely hurried on when, while walking the borders of his 42 acre estate called Sunnybank, he was hit by an automobile.
While I suspect he loved kids, he found spoiled brats annoying. And, a bit crushing to my literary love affair: rumor has it that he apparently wasn’t all that kind to his daughter from another marriage. He was always amazed how his collies, even some like a blue merle collie, Gray Dawn, who at least one writer claimed could be a bit vicious… (Interesting pun, isn’t it, “Bit vicious?”) …would put up with little kids pulling on their sensitive ears and hair. How, despite that, they would protect them to the point of their own lives. “The Master,” as he referred to himself and his relationship with Lad, Bruce and their many generations of purebred show dogs, certainly did learn a lot from his loving collies…. though he preferred referring to them as “thoroughbred.”
Terhune taught me a lot about love. We all have a lot to learn from each other. Like in Albert Payson’s many stories and books, I too have found myself out smarted by my own collies, or shown how I’m being unfair, or lacking patience.
I’m not sure what his politics were, though I suspect he was a bit of a conservative. Yet he had equal animosity for any politician or public figure who would bloviate a lot and thought too much of themselves. He didn’t care for those who made promises and then went back on them. I can’t imagine he’d be a fan of many of our talk show hosts and our pundits these days. He loathed loudmouths who pretended to be more than they really were; those who tried to shove others around with their assumed all important nature. But we’ll never know what he would have had to say about these pundits, of course.
Many of his stories were morality plays where the collies often taught the Master a lesson, or about some malevolent soul who held a grudge or did something he shouldn’t have. Where bravery was absent in the human heart, the soul shining deep in the eyes of the collie provided. This was not hyperbole. I have seen it over and over.
Maybe I also love him so much because he was a bit of a crank. His voice was often one of a rambling commentary on changes in society and human characteristics he was far less than fond of. My hero. I’m still trying to emulate that noble aspect to his character. I suspect my wife might say…. “What do you mean, ‘trying?'”
Maybe, as a kid, it helped that he wrote about how everyone seemed to think it must be marvelous to be way over six feet tall… yet how awkward, socially problematic and often impossible it was. I have never been tall, but what kid doesn’t feel awkward and singled out in unfair ways for their differences: the things that make them unique? I also understand all to well how one can become well known for one’s talent and able to make a living that way, even live comfortably, but still long to stretch beyond that: show how you’re more than an author who can write about collies… or write and perform shows for children, or teach children about script writing using digital recording, in my case. All an absolute blessing, yet also a bit of a curse. You learn how to flesh out your stories; your endeavors, with the story of your own life and lessons you’ve learned, and include humor. With me: puns and parody. With Albert Payson Terhune, while mentioning collectibles you have: specifically a multiple bladed sword, you also mention that upon a press of a button it spreads wide with a twist. Then you tell your readers it may be the origin of the concept of “hamburger.” I remember reading that in my Baptist camp cabin one summer and waking other kids up. I almost fell out of my cot due to laughter. A bit gruesome to say the least, but funny.
Minds “educated” on a personal reading level only to the point of Superman, or Archie, comic books never seemed to understand the attraction… even when I try to explained why I found his books so captivating, so intriguing and even funny.
Albert and Anice had a 42 acre estate in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey: on Pompton Lake. Although publishers loved to put drawings of collies running for a dip down at the lake he openly told readers they didn’t know what they were talking about: collies tend to dislike water. Not “all,” but I would say “most.” Just like they tend to loath thunder. My luck? I finally got a tri-color named Frankincense who doesn’t care and likes to wade into lakes and streams, but about the same time my wife found him a little mutt “pal” for him who hates, and is terrified, by both. Figures. Now the ever smart collie realizes that “thunder” and “getting attention” can be synonyms. He accompanies the little dog who shivers in fear; both getting as close as they can, over to my computer while I type this as thunder sounds in the distance. Of course he wears that ever present collie smirk. Some days I swear he’s laughing at me.
If not for Terhune there would be no Lassie. I always felt that Lassie was a shallow attempt to feed off of what Terhune started back when German shepherds were the most popular breed; back at the turn of the previous century. While, due to TV and movies, Lassie became more famous… it’s sad that a great writer’s work was somewhat intellectually marginalized by spinning out one dimensional tales suited for the tube. Tales easily mocked by, “Go Lassie, go get the crane and bring it back. Get Timmy out of the well. The keys are in the ignition.”
The exploits of Lad, Bruce, Gray Dawn, Lady and the hundreds of other Sunnybank collies were, unlike Lassie, often true. Yes, they absolutely were “fictionalized.” I’m sure Albert had no way of knowing exactly what happened when, during a forest fire, a half burned collie showed up at The Place with an unburnt child, but these incidents: many of them, did happen. And I’m sure he added substance where substance was lacking. I have no doubt he pieced several incidents together and then spun them into a tale, or two… or more. As a writer myself I understand the process all too well. But where Terhune took liberties, the many authors of the Lassie stories just went wild, or just “took.” One of my first lessons in how the creative world works is when I discovered after Albert died, when the first Lassie book was published, it amazingly seemed to have lifted some of the content directly out of Terhune’s books. I’m sure Anice was too busy to pursue such odd similarities in intellectual properties. For instance the American Kennel Club was demanding accounting for every collie, pedigree-wise, or Sunnybank would lose its kennel license. In the beginning of her book: Across the Line, Anice makes it obvious that, after her beloved “Bert” left this life behind, her life was filled with an amazing flock of lawyers and legal issues. To keep herself solvent Anice sold much of the land over the years: dwindling 42 acres down to 9.
Albert Payson Terhune often wrote about the rudely curious and that era’s paparazzi who invaded their privacy. Often one of his collies would help offer up the hint that they were not welcome. Since he was the most famous man in town he also wrote about a few attempts to break into The Place. He hired locals, some who decided they didn’t like the collies or could partake of the Terhunes wealth: leading to a few firings and charges filed. He told many of these tales in his books and short stories like Bruce, Treve and Best Loved Dog Stories. I got the sense that a few of his neighbors, in the wider Pompton Lakes area, may have resented his fame. I do remember a story where at least one tried to poison one of his collies.
If you worked for the Terhunes and respected the collies; The Place and the Terhunes, you became part of the family in a sense, though the Master and the Mistress did treasure their privacy. Robert Friend, their caretaker, was often mentioned in the books: affectionately. But they also had their share of workers who were dishonest or careless. I suspect some of the animosity locally may have been driven by those who lost their jobs because they left a door open so a panicked horse could escape, stole something or they mistreated one of the collies. The one thing you didn’t do was threaten the Master or the Mistress: you might find yourself facing a collie with attitude. This was, indeed, a mutual love affair between the Master, the Mistress and their Sunnybank collies.
The Sunnybank collies did place in some AKC shows, but Albert Payson refused to ship his beloved collies nationwide, show to show, as if they were prize flowers or inanimate works of art.
Of course there other were reasons for much of this. Did I mention some might have considered him a bit of a crank? Oh, that’s right, I think I did.
They were standard fare’, religiously. They attended the Dutch Reformed Church in Pompton Lakes where they are buried. His father was a prominent Dutch Reform Minister. When Albert died, I thought I remembered reading comments by Anice, in her book Across the Line, that she had to looking for pedigrees: something about the courts claiming the dogs had to be destroyed. According to Judy Leathers, editor of The Lookout: newsletter regarding all things Terhune, that was never actually in the will. Albert Payson has requested that the collies live out their natural lives at The Place. I suspect these inaccurate comments may have been comments made by some local one of the times I visited The Place in the 60s; maybe someone in the caretaker’s house at the top of the drive.
But no matter where the comment came from, I found out about the pedigree incident after obtaining a copy of Anice Terhune’s book. I was in a used bookstore in St. Augustine. Just wasting time before my next performance down the road: Songtales I perform all over the east coast for the very young. I walked in and the proprietor asked me what I like to read. After mentioning Sci Fi, and odd takes on theology, I also mentioned I used to read a lot of books about collies when I was a kid.
“I have just the book for you.”
Honest. I never mention Albert Payson Terhune. I certainly didn’t mention this book which I had had a passion for reading for many years. I had even tried to trace it down but found it had gone out of print long ago.
During this battle over the collies she was looking for a pedigree for one of the collies to prove ownership. She heard his voice, clear as day, tell her exactly where it was in as she sat at his desk. This led to multiple spiritual contacts regarding many things as Bert filled her life again. She wrote a book of all Bert told her called, Across the Line using a very rough draft Albert Payson Terhune had written with a similar; though not quite the same, theme.
In Across the Line she talks about what her husband experienced after he died. Albert told her we all go the same place. We are the ones who turn it into Heaven or Hell. Our Earth-bound inspiration comes from there, those who worked in medicine came up with innovative ideas for patient care once they pass on, fiction writers create story and novel concepts… and on it goes. Who we call Satan is there: the most unhappy creature in what we might call Heaven. To him it is Hell. There are levels to what we call Heaven and we work our way up to get closer to the Divine.
Do I accept all that as fact? No, but I find it fascinating.
In the 60s I visited Sunnybank twice. I saw The Garden from Everywhere that Anice grew out of seeds gathered from their many travels, The Place that over looks the lake and the dog kennels towards the back of the house. The house was torn down the second time I visited: apparently some local kids tried climbing up to the roof and fell through. The township felt it was a liability as is. But Sunnybank, with much of the property sold by Anice just to keep some of Albert’s dream alive, still lives. They have dog shows and collie meets. There’s even a society with a newsletter dedicated to their memory called The Lookout.
The Garden from Everywhere. You may notice the collie in this picture from the Terhune Memorial website. Just like many of the website pictures, I find mine often unintentionally filled with a collie. They certainly are ever curious creatures, aren’t they?
I remember my mother on the way there the first time tried to convince me nothing I had read was true; it was all fiction. When we arrived she was strangely silent: especially as we stood over Laddie’s grave. The caretaker at the time: George McCann; not Robert Friend that Albert wrote affectionately about, directed us down the driveway. We had free run of the grounds and the outside of the house. The lake, now more populated, was still quite beautiful. A house towered up on a hill above The Place: obviously part of the property sell off that allowed Anice to spend her last days at The Place.
My wife and I have had five collies on our 28 acres here in a little “holler,” as they call small valleys here in Tennessee. They are brilliant, loving, companions who will be there for you even when you royally mess up, when you pay too little attention, when you get upset about something you thought they did but should have known better… they’re too smart to have done whatever you think they did. They love kids, the defenseless: with a passion… and often let them do things to them they’d never let an adult do; though they can be very loyal to their “Master,” their “Mistress.” Sometimes they even take the blame for what the cats or some little brainless dogs do: even though they might loath both. And if they think you’re playing too roughly with that same little dog they will defend him. They live for you, for “the pack:” the family and maybe to catch a Frisbee now and then like my 12 year old; still spry, Frankincense. They are loyal beyond belief, fair and decent.
And as much as I love collies, Albert, Anice and their loyalty to each other…
…I wish I could make the same claims for much of humanity. We surely could use more of the gentleness, the beauty and the love that Albert and Anice poured into their lives, their books and their readers. Readers who Albert Payson Terhune never, ever, talked down to: even though he knew many children, like myself, were his most faithful readers; almost as faithful as Sunnybank collies were to the Master, the Mistress and The Place.
Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
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