A tragedy and a relationship with the First Lady helped equip Bruce for his future work and ministry In a series of unlikely divine interventions, Mark shares the journey and fulfilment of his love for dogs, brought back to life by a remarkable little dog, Streaker. Just as amazing is the long-term friendship Mark develops with Jacqueline, and how God used that friendship to mentor him. That sense of divine calling led Mark to opportunities of great service for the Kingdom of God, while at times dangerous, Incredibly rewarding and important. Streaker may have been a mutt, but his simple bloodline showed Mark that anyone puts their giftedness in God's hands, and allows God to use them, amazing things happen. Mark grew up with a love for dogs. This became a focal point of Mark's childhood when the President and Mrs. Kennedy gave him the "pupnik" named Streaker, the grand-pup of Strelka, the first dog to orbit earth in a Soviet Sputnik spaceship, and return alive. Mark maintained a pen-pal relationship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with many personal letters, from the 1960's until the 1980's.
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About the Author
Mark is an emergency medicine physician in Wisconsin, a husband of 42 years to his wife Moira E. O'Brien-Bruce, DO, and a father and grandfather to 5 children, and 7 grandchildren. Mark's has travelled with the international medical ministry in Central America, Asia, Europe, and Africa, and led many teams into the Asian disaster zones for medical relief work. In addition to clinical duties, Mark is the Ambassador to Belize and Canada for the American College of Emergency Physicians.
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The Summer of 1963
I squinted in the sunshine, the weight of smooth wood in my hands. Squinting back at me from his mound, the pitcher stood ready to hurl the next ball. Under an azure-blue sky, playing with my friends in my backyard, how could summer vacation get any better than this? I adjusted my feet in an attempt to match the stance of my baseball hero, Stan "The Man" Musial. Hunching over the plate just a bit, I waited for the slow, pudgy duck of a pitch to arc toward me. As it approached — belt high, right in my wheelhouse — I was determined not to whiff. My Louisville slugger shot forward, slicing the air with all the force my ten-year-old arms could muster.
Little did I know that one swing would lead to a heartbreaking tragedy, a connection with a First Lady, and an understanding that our God in heaven has control, even in the midst of chaos.
A PLACE OF SAFETY
It was the summer of 1963. Trouble in the world filled news reports on the television and the cloud of the Cold War hung over our heads. The Bay of Pigs incident in the spring of 1961 had tarnished America's blue-chip image. The existential threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 had frightened the nation. Civil unrest had grown with riots in Birmingham, Alabama, that May. Martin Luther King Jr., had emerged as a respected leader, one who would continue to have an impact on the whole nation and even the world, well into the future.
I had an awareness of all of this. I sensed a lingering fear that catastrophe on an unimaginable scale lurked just around the corner, ready to envelop us. Even as a young boy, I perceived a certain sense of foreboding, feeling it in the adults around me — my parents, my teachers at school, and all those I looked up to. Hope for the future had dimmed.
At least, it had for much of the nation. While I was aware of these things, the everyday held far too many distractions and pleasures to allow me too much trepidation. In fact, for a ten-year-old boy growing up in Middle America, life was sublime. As a part of a whole generation of baby boomers, growing up amidst a life of post World War II prosperity, I didn't spend a lot of time dwelling on the mayhem. I believed in a bright future.
The college town of Columbia, Missouri, served as a perfect backdrop to an idyllic childhood. In my quiet suburban neighborhood, I could ride my bike to my friend's house, explore Bear Creek with its frogs and crawdads, and play baseball with my friends. We felt safe and secure — what was crime?
My brothers and I attended Parkade Elementary School, only five blocks away from our home. Dad was a Baptist minister, and both of my parents earned the respect of the community. As pastor's kids, my brothers and I had the run of Memorial Baptist. I can still picture the redbrick church with white pillars that we attended every Wednesday night and twice on Sundays. Though the world outside may have been fraught with danger and uncertainty, safety and security seemed to wrap around our town like a blanket. It seemed a peace that nothing could disturb.
A HERO AT HOME PLATE
Of all the distractions available to me, I especially loved baseball — in particular, the St. Louis Cardinals. That summer of 1963 proved to be the last in the illustrious career of Stan "The Man" Musial, the star player for the Cardinals. At forty-two, he still hit an average of .251 and closed out his 22-year career with a lifetime batting average of .331, having set National League records in career hits (3,630), runs batted in (1,951), games played (3,026), at bats (10,972), runs scored (1,949), and doubles (725). A seven-time batting champion, Musial was named the National League's MVP three times and led the Cardinals to three World Series Championships.
As a kid, I didn't memorize statistics. But my head was filled with the fantasy of being Stan the Man every time I went up to bat. Like him, I "swung for the fences." Musial's baseball career was ending as my life was just beginning. Unbeknownst to him, he would impact me in a most profound way on that summer day.
Baseball consumed summer life on our street. My family had the biggest yard on the block, so it became the neighborhood gathering place for baseball games. Because our backyard backed up against a major highway, a six-foot chain-link fence stood where our lot ended. It took a solid hit to clear that fence, so any hit that made it that far became an automatic home run. The highway was located on an elevated embankment, so we never hit any vehicles.
When the weather warmed, almost every day included a baseball game. My brothers and I had chores to do, but after we finished them, it was game on. A few neighborhood kids always joined up with the three Bruce boys for exciting baseball play. We had no real home plate, just a worn spot on the field. No one pitched to strike the batter out. That would just waste time as choosy batters would wait for their pitch. Balls and strikes didn't much matter. Bunts? No way. Everyone wanted to hit — and hit as hard as they could.
A FRIEND AT PLAY
Even more than baseball, I loved dogs. I came out of the womb of a dog lover. I think my first sentence was, "Can I have a dog?" I can't explain this natural canine affinity, other than to say that God made me that way. Dog lovers know what I mean. Our family had other pets, mostly cats, but they never seemed to capture my heart the way dogs did.
As parents of active boys, my mom and dad constantly looked for wholesome activities for their children. So when the 4-H program started up in the part of Columbia where we lived, I think they thought it might help me stay out of trouble. 4-H offered a lot of ways to get involved, and I was especially excited about the dog care program that taught kids grooming, feeding, obedience training, and general responsibility for a dog. I figured that if I got into the 4-H Dog Care Program, I would have to get a dog — and it worked! So, at age nine, I acquired a mutt named Midget. Through a 4-H leader's network, I received Midget free of charge (very important to us, since we didn't have a lot of money). This energetic, super-fast canine fulfilled my dog longings and became my loyal companion.
Baseball and Midget filled that summer of 1963. She loved to play ball as much as I did. I hardly had to teach her to fetch, and she could play catch with a baseball with remarkable finesse. If it was Mom and Dad's intent to keep me out of trouble, it worked. We spent hours after school playing.
A TRAGEDY AT BAT
On that fateful day, I found myself at bat, with a fantasy of Stan the Man whirling in my head. Fantasy has been the failing of many a man, and this time it would cost me greatly. I can still smell the scent of freshly cut grass and feel the humidity of that hot June day in central Missouri. It was perfect baseball weather. When my turn at bat arrived, I stood at the "plate," rubbed some dirt on my hands, dug in my PF Flyers, and choked up on the bat just enough to copy my hero. Stan the Man would be retiring soon, so he would be swinging for the fences even more than usual ... and so would I. When I saw the pitch, I knew it would get me a home run. I swung with all my might.
But, instead of the satisfying crack of my bat against the ball, I heard a sickening thud. I had assumed Midget was in the house. She wasn't. My best canine friend and expert ball catcher had been standing dutifully behind me. When she saw the baseball approaching home plate, she thought it was meant for her. With a horror of synchrony, she leapt to catch the ball just as I made my perfect "Stan the Man" cut. In so many aspects of life, timing is everything. How I wish my timing had been off that day. If only I had been more like Mighty Casey at bat instead of Stan the Man. I hit Midget squarely in the head, and she died instantly, not making a sound. I screamed in anguish. Hot tears mixed with sweat and humidity as I stood over her lifeless body, flooded with both grief and disbelief at what had just happened. I had destroyed the very one I loved.
I continued to cry for a week, constantly wracked with guilt and loneliness. Inconsolable, I came out of the bedroom I shared with my brother only to eat and use the restroom. The instant replay of my swinging bat and leaping dog went through my mind again and again. I couldn't think of anything but Midget and that surreal moment. The marathon of grief warped time. What had happened in a second took an eternity to endure.
Had the incident happened today, I would have been in counseling, but those resources were unheard of then. Although my parents attempted to comfort me and my friends tried to console me, nothing quenched my sorrow. My love for Midget hurt. My love for baseball stung as aftershocks of bitter grief and remorse ebbed and flowed.
Even if I had not been fully aware of the mayhem of the world in the 1960s, I now faced my own personal tragedy.
Life is bigger than ourselves, for we live in a world where there is a God, and He often intervenes in the most unexpected of ways. But on that day, He didn't seem to intervene, leaving me heartbroken and in despair. Later, I learned that He knew my pain and would choose His time to act. He opened my eyes to the world around me, a world far bigger than my life in Columbia, Missouri.CHAPTER 2
And now for the rest of the story ...
The expansion of my world began with Paul Harvey's radio broadcast, which my parents faithfully listened to in those days. One summer day not long after the death of Midget, the legendary newsman and commentator would announce something that would change my life and connect me with the First Lady of the United States. To understand the context for that announcement, however, we must go to Vienna.
A SUMMIT AND A SPACE PUP
The story begins with the 1961 Vienna Summit Conference, where the leaders of the world's two superpowers in the Cold War era met. President John F. Kennedy of the United States and Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union sat down together to discuss issues between their two countries. Contact between the two heads of state began with a letter Khrushchev sent to Kennedy on November 9, 1960, congratulating the new president on his victory. In the letter, Khrushchev also expressed a desire to negotiate with the United States on the issues of disarmament and the easing of international tensions. Kennedy and Khrushchev continued to correspond, and on February 22, 1961, Kennedy sent Khrushchev a letter stating, "I hope it will be possible, before too long, for us to meet personally for an informal exchange of views." The president thought that if he could get the Soviet leader to come to the table, they could work out their conflicts. Other American diplomats advised Kennedy not to meet with Khrushchev, fearing the young president had misjudged his rival's intentions.
However, the two leaders continued their plans, and in June of 1961, they met in Vienna. There they discussed topics related to Berlin, Laos, and the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. At first, the meeting was seen as a diplomatic triumph, but in retrospect, President Kennedy had a very inauspicious foreign policy debut at this summit. It was overly ambitious and naïve for the young president to attempt to charm the Russians into Cold War submission and give up their aspirations of world domination.
Even though the president could not claim diplomatic victory, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy had some success at the state dinner by enchanting Premier Khrushchev. The Summit Conference took place in the context of the early Space Race. The Soviets had experienced recent success with the live return of two dogs sent into space aboard the Sputnik spacecraft, becoming known to the world as Strelka and Belka, and referred to as space dogs. These dogs were strays, "volunteering" for the Soviet Space Program and so becoming heroes of the Soviet Empire. After their return, Strelka had a litter of pups, which gained international attention. At the Summit Conference State Dinner, Strelka's "space pups" became a topic of the evening. First Lady Kennedy, while making small talk with the Soviet Premier, not very seriously suggested that he should give her one of the pups. Everyone had a good chuckle about this, but since animals had become the Kennedys' preferred gift of state, the Soviets took the comment more seriously than Mrs. Kennedy had intended.
In a letter to the White House shortly following the Vienna Summit, Premier Khrushchev wrote of the gifts he was sending the American First Family — a model of a nineteenth-century sail-steam vessel carved from a walrus tusk (President Kennedy having remarked on his love of collecting ship models) and another present, meant for the First Lady. "It is also a pleasure," the Soviet Premiere wrote, "for Nina Petrovna and myself to fulfill Mrs. Kennedy's wish and to send to you and your family little 'Pushinka,' a direct offspring of the well known cosmos-traveler 'Strelka,' which made a trip in a cosmic ship on August 19, 1960, and successfully returned to earth."
A few weeks later, the Soviet Ambassador arrived at the White House with a fluffy white puppy to give to the First Family, who, of course, graciously accepted the pup into their household. In his reply letter, dated June 21, 1961, Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev of his gratitude for the gifts of both the model and the puppy, remarking, "Mrs. Kennedy and I were particularly pleased to receive 'Pushinka.' Her flight from the Soviet Union to the United States was not as dramatic as the flight of her mother, nevertheless, it was a long voyage and she stood it well."
A LITTER IN THE WHITE HOUSE
Kennedy's poor performance in Vienna haunted his administration and, some have alleged, caused the Soviets to underestimate the resolve and competence of the young president, resulting in an overreach in the Soviet foreign policy objectives and actions. This led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962.
In the midst of the chaos and confusion of the missile crisis, President Kennedy found comfort in the company of Charlie, the family's Welsh terrier, having the kennel handler bring Charlie to the White House War Room. After about ten minutes of playing with Charlie, President Kennedy was able to refocus on the crisis, helping him to make key decisions that profoundly influenced the survival of Western civilization.
Eight months later, Charlie sired a litter of four pups by Pushinka. President Kennedy nicknamed the litter the "pupniks" (a play on the name of the Sputnik spacecraft), and when they were born on June 15, 1963, the whole nation delighted in these famous dogs. Suddenly, the White House kennels were bursting.
This plethora of First Dogs led to the statement by Paul Harvey that changed my life.
A PUPNIK BIRTH ANNOUNCEMENT
One day that June, my mother, brothers, and I were listening to our plastic tabletop radio with a radial dial as we ate lunch at the kitchen table. We faithfully listened to "Paul Harvey News and Commentary" every day, but that day the broadcast seized my attention. The venerated newsman told the story of Pushinka's offspring and the sudden excess of puppies at the White House. Harvey wondered aloud, "What are they going to do with all those dogs?" My ears immediately perked up. And I thought I might have an answer, at least regarding one of the pupniks.
The loss of Midget had created a huge void in my life. But perhaps the abundance of dogs at the White House could be an answer to prayer. I needed a new canine companion and a pet for my 4-H dog care project. Why not one of the dogs Paul Harvey talked about? Consequently, I announced to my family that I would write the First Family and ask for one of the puppies.
My two older brothers thought my plan was amusing, to say the least, especially in light of Midget's recent demise. I could feel their skeptical stares and see the rolling of their eyes, not to mention hearing their not-too-subtle snide remarks. But I was undaunted. Eventually I discovered that God's intervention in our lives, so clear and evident to us, may not be understood by others. God reaches out to the small and humble. Even my Baptist minister father, although a godly man thoroughly versed in Scripture, could not suspend his disbelief when faced with the reality of divine intervention within his own household.
I couldn't conceive that the First Lady, or President Kennedy, could find a more deserving home for one of the pups. With Mom's approval, I set about writing Mrs. Kennedy, explaining my situation, and asking for one of the pupniks. I pled my case as well as a ten-year-old could, then put the letter in the mail, hoping it was good enough.
I wrote bluntly and to the point. My letter essentially said, "I killed my dog. May I have one of yours?" I didn't use my very real emotional trauma to play on her heart — I was a guileless young boy. Manipulating myself into the heart of the First Lady was not my intent.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Jackie, A Boy, and a Dog"
Copyright © 2019 Mark D. Bruce.
Excerpted by permission of Clovercroft Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 The Summer of 1963 15
Chapter 2 Pupniks 25
Chapter 3 Surprise 47
Chapter 4 Streaker 71
Chapter 5 The First Lady 99
Chapter 6 Death and Life 119
Chapter 7 Medical School and Marriage 143
Appendix 1 Glossary of Terms 179
Appendix 2 Media Coverage 187
About the Author Mark D. Bruce 191