As traffic stopped on the Veterans Memorial Bridge Monday night, at first I couldn’t tell what was going on. Then the long dark figure of a dog appeared. The car in front of me on Interstate 89 North went ahead and I followed.
But after crossing the bridge, I saw the lights of a vehicle off the freeway, just beyond the ramp to White River Junction. I pulled into the recovery lane and parked my car with its hazard lights on. There weren’t any police on the scene yet, so I thought I should call him.
My impulse that evening brought me back to witness a story that has since appeared in media as far as New Zealand: a heroic dog leads the police to its injured owner.
When I saw this story on Facebook Tuesday morning, posted by New Hampshire State Police, I was surprised and, I admit, a little dismayed.
What I had seen, standing in the recovery lane, was an accident that was sure to ruin many lives. Before learning the names of the two injured men – the driver, Cameron Laundry, of North Hartland, later said he suffered a concussion, abrasions on his back and stitches in one hand; her passenger, Justin Connors, from Norwich, remains hospitalized and has had at least two surgeries – we had heard Shiloh of Laundry shepherd named Tinsley.
Humans have always been sensitive to sentimental accounts that overshadow the prosaic details of ordinary events. Perhaps the combination of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the power of the internet makes these stories more common. The recent death of Joan Didion, who has devoted most of her writing career to punching over inflated stories of feelings, should remind us that we owe it to the world to try to see things clearly.
Perhaps from where he was sitting, New Hampshire State Soldier Tom Sandberg believed Tinsley was asking him and a Lebanese police officer to follow her to the scene of the accident. . I have no reason to doubt him. It was dark and cold, and I was standing a few hundred yards away.
I fumbled by calling the authorities. I first called the Hartford Police, a number I’ve dialed so many times in my job that I can’t forget it. But I was tired and struggling to focus on the phone menu, so I gave up and dialed 911, which routed my call to New Hampshire.
It took a few minutes to route the call to Vermont and from there to Hartford and the Vermont State Police. They took my information, including my name, phone number, and oddly enough, my date of birth, and told me to wait for a soldier from Vermont to arrive.
While on the phone, I heard people talking around the wreckage of the vehicle. I stayed in the troubleshooting lane. Usually I keep a blanket, a change of clothes, and a first aid kit in my car in the winter, but I didn’t have any of these with me. I wasn’t even very warmly dressed and at one point had to get back in the car and turn on the heater to warm myself up. My lack of preparation marked me as the journalist that I am; I am not a lifeguard.
I don’t remember if the New Hampshire agents appeared on the bridge while I was on the phone or shortly thereafter. The two cruisers seemed to me to be trying to drive Tinsley off the bridge.
(I’ve never seen Grizzy, Connors’ Bulldog, who was found dead beside the freeway Tuesday morning by an employee of the Vermont Agency of Transportation. And I never got a response from VTrans on the ‘place where Grizzy was found.)
At one point, one of the cruisers triggered its siren and appeared to sneak back and forth to chase Tinsley off the bridge. It was difficult for me to see. (I tried to populate this account with an email to Sandberg and a phone message to Vermont Trooper Stacia Geno, who issued the Wednesday morning press release on the incident, but got no response. .)
Shortly after the siren was heard, the patrol cars pulled up the freeway and entered the recovery lane. The officers put on their jackets and walked down the bank to help Connors and Laundry.
I didn’t see Tinsley until after the officers went to the wrecked laundry truck and spoke to him. She trotted along the railing of the Interstate 91 ramp, across from where I was standing, then down to the truck. It seemed to me that she heard Laundry’s voice and walked over to him. He was desperate, moaning at times, “I’m sorry! I am sorry!”
Soon the Hartford ambulances arrived. Vermont State Police must have arrived too. I saw Connors placed on a backboard and transported to an ambulance. By then it was almost 11 p.m., and although I had not spoken with a state soldier, I got in my car and drove home.
The story that took to social media Tuesday morning was at odds with what I had seen, but I let it go. In a short-term journal, it’s hard to know where to start digging each morning. And once hundreds of people have gushed over social media about the exploits of a heroic dog, it’s hard to start putting together what looks like a counter-narrative. On Tuesday, we wrote what we can confirm, which was a version of Tinsley’s heroism, although hopefully not as flattering as those offered by other outlets.
But on Wednesday, when Vermont State Police released more details and announced that they were charging the laundry with drunk driving, we were able to begin to separate the story. I spoke with Laundry and with Kristen Connors, Justin’s ex-wife, and we got to report how the accident affected Justin Connors’ family.
Also, the account sent by VSP seemed closer to what I had seen – that the officers on the bridge drove up after seeing the wrecked truck. As it turned out, the accident was more than a story of a dog’s heroism or their unwavering love for their owner.
The violent wreckage, allegedly fueled by drunk driving, led to criminal charges for one man, caused significant injury to another, and claimed the life of a dog.
Putting together the account of an event is a hazardous business, which relies on witnesses and their ability to put their feelings aside. Everyone loves to bask in the warm glow of good deeds and wrongs righted, but few events unfold in a way that lends itself to simple emotions.
Monday night’s accident is not the only recent example of a heartwarming story from the Upper Valley that has been picked up by national media. A month ago, CBS News aired a segment on how customers at Dan & Whit’s, Norwich’s rightly revered general store, stepped in to stock shelves and manage the cash register when employees were in short supply. . The story had already circulated on Vermont Public Radio, subsidiaries of Boston TV and elsewhere. Robert Reich, a Dartmouth College graduate and former labor secretary in the Clinton administration, also picked up on the story as an example of what happens when a community comes together.
The story is true, but incomplete. Norwich’s vast resources have been lost in this blanket. In 2017, Norwich had the highest median household income in the state, $ 141,660.
This is no Tunbridge, where a couple are trying to revive the North Tunbridge store and the town has been storeless for a few years now. The median household income in Tunbridge was $ 58,571 in 2019, according to census data. It’s harder in this city to work in an otherwise low-paying retail business for anything other than warm duvets.
It doesn’t matter if national outlets want to believe that dogs can save their owners and communities can rally together to save their general stores, but without the key details should we believe them?
If Joan Didion, who wrote about the atomization of American culture from the 1960s, has taught us anything, it’s this: questioning easy and emotionally simple history. It may be true, but it is probably not the whole truth.
Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.