I’ve had at least two angels on duty during my life, others say, but the only angel I really found was my service dog, Norton, a mixture of Golden Retriever and Labrador and all heart with two white patches on his shoulders that look like angel wings against his otherwise tan coat.
He earned the title “Mr.” because he was just an incredible companion. I had to
wait until I was in my 60s for Mr. Norton to show up in my life and be my
“move” dog. His picture always was with mine in our “Voices of Disability”
column that began in The Oakland Press in 1999 and won many journalism and
community awards, but also, far more importantly, brought attention to the
economic and political plight of the disabled.
When I first saw Mr. Norton with my wife, JoAnn, in 2005 at Paws with a Cause
in Wayland, Mich., I thought he was absolutely stunning. He knew he was royalty
and I suppose I should have dubbed him “Sir” instead of “Mr.” but so far he
Mr. Norton was sitting on a chair with head held high with many people sitting
or standing around the walls of the room. Each had a role in training him to
serve me. Mr. Norton could pull my wheelchair, pick up items I dropped, open
doors, take off my shoes and socks, and make me laugh. Everyone wherever I went
or worked loved that dog. If ever there was a chic-magnate, he was it. I regret
I didn’t have him when I was young and single, but I probably wouldn’t have
made it much past 20, but it would have been a healing process.
Anyway, Mr. Norton always kept me in line. I could flirt but not touch because
my wife, JoAnn, was his best pal and the leader of our little pack.
One time in the early 2000s I told a park ranger at the Great Smoky Mountains
that the park should have an accessible trail back into the woods that a
wheelchair-user could use. Shortly after the Americans with Disabilities Act
was signed I became one of the 200 or so people picked by the Department of
Justice and EEOC to learn it and go back to our homes and teach it so it was
enforced. So, I was psychologically weighed down from 1990 forward in trying to
make sure buildings, parks and restaurants were following what was called the
most comprehensive civil rights law in history. Sometimes I wish I never had
that training and received accreditation as an ADA Phase II Implementer from the
government because the law is not really being followed. We believed the law
would really work, but decades later the jobless rate among the disabled is
still absurdly high and a majority of businesses are not accessible – a losing
situation for all.
In the fall of 2011 or so, JoAnn and I went back to that park. The Ranger,
Katherine, remembered me since I had been an angry asshole in telling her about
the lack of accessibility at the park. By the way, federal entities such as the
Smoky Mountains aren’t covered by the ADA, but are to be accessible under the
“So, you came back,” she said to me as we rolled into the park ranger station.
“I have some good news. Go down the road about a half-mile and there’s an
JoAnn, Mr. Norton and I got out of our Subaru where the ranger told us to go to
and found the walkway. It was asphalt covered and about eight-feet wide, a real
easy ride for someone like me.
So, I grabbed a hold of Mr. Norton’s harness and he started pulling me as JoAnn
walked beside us. It was a beautiful day and we went deeper into the woods,
leaving the sounds of the highway behind us.
Next thing I knew was that Mr. Norton had gone off at full speed after a
squirrel in the woods. I held on tight to his harness. Bad idea. He dragged me out
of my wheelchair and at least 10 feet off of the asphalt and I ended up lying
in a bunch of prickly bushes and mud.
“Why can’t you get him for me?” Mr. Norton said with his eyes of the squirrel
he had treed. “Damn, Mr. Norton,” I muttered. “Here’s another nice mess we are
in because I keep forgetting you aren’t human and run after critters that run
through the bushes in forests.
“Oh well, JoAnn,” I said, “I guess you have to go back and get that ranger to
help me get out of this mess.”
“Why weren’t you careful?” the ranger said as she and JoAnn got me back in the
chair as Mr. Norton sat by watching and apparently very entertained by the
entire unfolding scene and oblivious to the bruises his ‘master’ had incurred.
“I guess I forgot to be on squirrel patrol,” I quietly said to the ranger as
our walk in the park ended for that day.
-- wolffe (Mr. Norton is recovering from nearly being hung by a harness around his neck when he apparently fell off a grooming table and incurred a severe pinch nerve... 2.27.2014).