Gary Justis

Gary Justis
Bloomington, Illinois, US
April 04
Gary Justis has worked primarily in the area of kinetic sculpture for the last 34 years. He lived and worked in Chicago from 1977 to 1999. He currently resides in Bloomington Illinois, where he teaches and writes stories about his actual experiences. (please take a look at his "Sculpture" link for more info)


Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 22, 2009 8:36AM

Karma, Old Dogs, and Fine Men

Rate: 40 Flag



Wire Haired dog b

Small souls, extant and visible in the world, come around to fill in the gaps towards the fruition of our humanity. They offer small things that confident people sometimes cannot offer, a recognition of suffering and injustice… and with gentle resolve, they lie quietly at our feet, dreaming magnificent combinations of swift motion and endless adoration.




The surliness of my teachers from Junior High and High School was always a great mystery and source of fascination. Mr. Toad in particular was brilliant, but also a very “Tough Nut” as my father put it so often.


Jim Toad had gone to war during WWII and served as a guard at a secret US POW facility somewhere in the Philippine Archipelago. He was an expert in American History and World War II.


When someone victimized the helpless, he could be a mean bastard.


I was still in junior high school when I saw him slap an older kid, and the sound carried across the street from the schoolyard to the porch of a sweet old retired grade school teacher’s house. She came onto her porch and stood with her hands against each side of her face.


“Goddamn you Jim!…You barbarian! That boy is smaller than you!”


Mr. Toad’s face flushed bright red and he turned and bowed to the lady, with his hands together in a sort of prayer gesture.


The interesting thing the old lady did not see was the way Dennis Braun and his buddies had nearly beat a stray dog to death at the edge of the schoolyard. The dog, a male, was not much more than a pup, with wiry hair in tones of red and grey. He limped over to the protection of a neighbor’s hedge, and lay whimpering in the cool shade.


Dennis was the main instigator of the beating. He spun around when he heard Mr. Toad’s shouting. He shot an insolent smile at his friends, and walked over to face the teacher. Mr. Toad said something to Dennis, who rolled his eyes, mouthed something, and then spit in Mr. Toad’s face.


The boy was lifted off the ground by Mr. Toad’s slap. Dennis ended up on the ground, lying on his back, crying, and I could see a red print on the side of his face. He climbed to his feet, in spite of the trauma, and walked up the sidewalk towards his house. 


Mr. Toad was called down for the assault. He argued with the parents and the principal. Shouts punctuated the afternoon stupor of the dusty, hardwood halls at our school. When the shouting stopped, Mr. Toad was right back in our classroom, telling us how ridiculous Adolf Hitler must have looked doing his little jigs whenever his staff brought him good news from the various fronts. Toad was fair, but aggressive, and he hated only two things more than insubordination…Cruelty and Injustice.


Many of us had heard about the Law of Karma for the first time in Mr. Toad’s class. He was talking about the estimated numbers of people killed by Stalin and Hitler during the time of their regimes. When Mr. Toad talked about villainy, his eyes narrowed, and he tensed his jaw, leaving little doubt of his contempt.


A student blurted out, “I’ll bet you would like to get old Hitler in the ring for some rounds!”


Mr. Toad softened slightly. “My hatred for these oppressors is of little consequence. They are getting payback a thousand fold.”


This was confusing to us. We all knew Hitler was dead…at least many officials said he had taken his own life. Stalin had died in 1953, one month before I was born.


“You people remember the thing you learned in science about every action creating its own equal and opposite reaction? The same is true in other realms. All of existence is continually recycled…again and again in infinite permutations. In other words, the actions of your life in your present form determines your future in other forms, after you die, and shed your present body.”


Joey raised his hand, “You mean, Hitler will come back as a guy again?”




I was fascinated, “Or could he come back as a horse, or pig, or something?”


“We can’t know for sure, but I am sure about one thing. The man must have a reckoning for what he did, a balance of his Karma, but no other person has right or reason to control another’s progression.”


“Mr. Toad, what do you think will happen to these two bad guys?”


Mr. Toad was clenching his fist. His knuckles lost color.


“It’s not mine to decide, but for the sake of all the people he slaughtered, I would like to think Stalin, along with his henchmen, exist at a mineral level, with the remaining molecules of their nerve endings grinding deep beneath the earth, in endless fire and impossible pressure.”


We all sat stunned, as we always did when Mr. Toad read poetry, or launched into a fascinating rant.


Finally someone asked, “What about old Adolf?”


“He is a suicide…I imagine the first sound he heard after the moment of death was the sound of his own cry as he was being reborn. I would like to imagine horrors that await him in this next life, but I shouldn' express my wishes in such a way. I’m breaking my own rules here. I don’t want vengeance to fester in me or with all of you. Let’s move on to another subject.”


Regardless of Mr. Toad’s efforts to change topics, reincarnation remained the subject of the day, with broadly painted fantasies of our future forms. We compared wishes, not thinking about those ideas being connected to religion. It just seems like a seamless, likely order of things.




  A number of years later, Dennis Braun was home visiting during his furlough from service in Vietnam, and he appeared in Mr. Toad’s classroom door one morning. Mr. Toad stopped his lecture, excused himself in front of the class, and walked over to Dennis. They leaned their faces close to one another. Dennis was whispering something inaudible to Mr. Toad as a broad smile formed on his face. He grabbed the teacher’s upper arms with both hands and gave him a swift, decisive shake. Mr. Toad walked back to the front of the class, signaling Dennis to come in and take a seat near the front.


Mr. Toad stood very straight, and announced in a booming, professorial voice, “Class, this man is Private Dennis Braun, he is home on leave from the Vietnam. He has just been awarded the Silver Star!”


The class erupted in applause with cheers and whistles. With the foreknowledge we had about awards given for bravery and sacrifice, we knew we were shaing the room with our own version of small-town greatness.


Other teachers, along with the principal appeared in the doorway. All the teachers and administrators shook our hero’s hand in turn, some leaning in to comment under the surge of noise and excitement.


When the cheering faded, and we all reclaimed our seats, one of those puffy silences descended. For a brief moment, it was as if the cheers and shouts had not happened moments before. Dennis remained at the front of the class. Facing us, he shrugged and sat on the teacher’s desk while we filled the silence with laughter and merry chatter. Someone threw a wad of paper from the back of the room and Dennis caught it in flight. He spat out his gum into it and winked at the group.


Mr. Toad held up his hand, and we all fell mute, our voices and laughter dropping away. He was smiling; the second time I had seen him smile in a month or so. Mr. Toad turned and walked to an adjacent wall where he kept a locked cabinet.


This was a mystery to most of us. The cabinet had the obvious security of a padlock, and we knew it contained important things. He jangled a fat wad of keys in his huge, veiny hands, opened the doors to the cabinet and removed something dark. He wheeled around and threw a pair of black boxing gloves to Dennis.


The soldier was startled, but he caught the gloves, looked back at M. Toad, smiled, and gave a slight nod. Mr. Toad walked back to the front of the class and bellowed, “People, gymnasium in five minutes…do not be late, no messing around, use the restroom! I’m keeping role!”



In the lower level of our ancient school building, the glorious green tile of the floor dominated the beige walls of the small gym. Over the years, the cleaning staff had made a commitment to the importance of the floor's surface. The coats of high gloss enriched our building with the deepest forest green. We all recognized the solemnity of the ground floor, and its importance to the identity of the space where we found the grudging distances that remained for each of us to reach physical perfection. Ropes were dutifully climbed, basket shots were taken, volley-balls were mistakenly captured by the nets, and the stage that capped the southern end gave us a platform for the myriad imaginations of young, conflicted minds… and of all the attributes of that early twentieth century structure, the floor of the gym inhabited everyone’s memories with a certain emerald perfection.


We assembled, sitting on the green floor, making a circle upon the cold tile, where we imagined a live drama would thrill us. We gathered, and traded speculations on what might happen. A few of the kids, knowing the story of Dennis and Mr. Toad, became a little frighenedl…some wanted to leave, others wiped back tears.


In the part of the circle of floor sitters where I sat, one of the class bullies leaned out, looking in the direction of the distraught students.


“Pussies!’s a boxing match!....for cripe’s sake!” 


Ferrin Torkelson was one of the unfortunate kids who had to grow into manhood before his time. He had lost his mother when he was eight years old. His alcoholic father, was gone most of the time. Ferrin was tough and invincible. We stayed away from him when we could. In circumstances where we were thrown together, Ferrin was not questioned.


“Pussies you say?”


We were shocked hearing those words from an adult voice. It was Dennis Braun, standing to the side of the stage. He had entered the gym through one of the stage access doors. The students went silent. All of us watched Dennis, wishing for a performance from our new hero.


We waited… Dennis walked to the center of our circle.


“Some of you know the details of my old relationship with Mr. Toad. On the battle fields in war, a man’s stamina and courage is stretched to the point where most of you could neve imagine. I’ll share with you how one of the lessons I learned at the school saved me, and several other brave buddies of mine.


On the boarder with Thailand, we found what we thought were the remains of a small dog in one of the blast ditches along the ridge of a hill where we were attempting to set up a staging area. The pup was alive. Several of the men thought we should kill it. they thought it was the merciful thing to do. My Lt. said 'no'.


In my mind, I heard Mr. Toad’s voice, telling me to step up and take responsibility. ‘Opportunities for showing kindness must be acted on, and in turn rewards are given…’


The words were the centerpiece of his belief that kindness opens sacred possibilities in the world. I took the pup, washed his wounds and brought him back to health where he could be used as a working animal. He was a sound Labrador and Doberman mix. We named him Styx. He stayed with us for the next 18 months. The lives of six infantrymen were saved by this dog. He could find the enemy quicker than anybody.


One morning, Styx ran into the jungle and we never saw him again.  I hoped he was fine with the VC. Dogs are eaten in this part of the world, but I always had a good feeling about his safety, and on a practical note, we never came across any bones, or scenes of animal slaughter.


Styx won the medal…not me. In the time we had him, he lead me across enemy fire to rendezvous with four soldiers. One of the guys was in bad shape. I was able to radio them out, and were it not for Styx, those men would have died in the ditch where I found them.”


The silence of the gym was unusual. Not even the plumbing creaked. All the students were mute, thinking about the drama on the other side of the world. Ove there, unimaginable confusion and heartache was a constant companion, with no stillness anywhere, save the fellowship of comrades, both human and K-9.


“You kids…you expect a contest. But I am tired of fighting. Mr. Toad knows this. I have worn these glove before, and when I was in school, I came to know the difference between what a man might selfishly take from his fellows, or what he might rightly do to benefit all people.”


Dennis turned to Mr. Toad and said,  “Sir. I will not fight you. I forfeit the contest in honor of the things you showed me…things to live by.”


The gloves fell to the floor.


Mr. Toad smiled. He walked past Dennis, patting his shoulder. At the double doors that opened into the gym from the adjacent hallway, Mr. Toad swung them open. In the entryway stood a student holding a leash. To his left sat a wiry haired dog, whose rosy coat was punctuated with wisps of black and grey. Mr. Toad giggled slightly, then gave a soft whistle...He turned and said:


“I called him Jack. He is my best friend. He loves this old gym. He loves…he loves…."


The cheers were deafening, some kids jumped to their feet. Others whistled and called out. The student led the eager dog towards the soldier. Dennis, overcome with emotion, fell to one knee. He embraced the dog. The student handed the leash to Dennis, as Jack excitedly writhed back and forth, his tail seeming to wag his wiry bulk.


Mr. Toad was holding a handkerchief to his face. He was gesturing with his hand as if he was bidding someone or something to take off. It was one of those signals that said, “I’ll be OK, your stuff is more important.”


One of the most memorable things about that day was seeing Ferrin Torkelson petting and stroking the dog. His face softened as he fended off Jack’s nose butts and wet, busy tongue.


More than anything, I’ll never forget being slightly shy and numb, lying on that green floor, with my ear pressed against it’s cool surface. I always tried to listen for Stalin’s terrible wails, remembering his karmic exile; a tenant of the mineral world. It was only a strange fantasy of my teacher’s design, and those vengeful imaginings faded quickly as I watched the upside-down, emerald reflections of our splendid reunion…




Green Floor
















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Gary. I'm speechless. Moved to tears. You've nailed it. Sigh.
Thanks for coming around...I know it's long..
Best wishes.
Gary, this was beautiful. What a way to start my day---being reminded that redemption and rehabilitation are possible---and Karma will take care of the rest.
great story wonderfully well said. i wonder if there is the 'condition' for characters like this to still be in teaching, or if they've been pushed out by the ever restricting requirements of the collective for order and control.

I'm of the opinion that the perception that recognizes "character" is diminishing rather than expanding and pity the poor "subversive" who tries to point it out. Leadership is mostly given lip service, when it occurs often it is not recognized or seen as a threat. Thanks for making the case.
I could hardly scroll fast enough. Well done.
My brother, you were blessed in that there were lessons in your young life that you learned well.

Now we are the ones who are blessed, because you also have the incredible gift of imparting those lessons to us so vividly, we are there with you.
Wow, again. This is so haunting, with such unexpected turns, and incredibly beautiful. The image at the end captures the sense of the last lines. Gary, you are an artist in the truest sense of the word - your work reaches the spirit, as well as the mind.
I just discovered I was holding my breath as I read this. I'm breathing again, and so pleased I had the opportunity to read this story, so wonderfully told. The unfolding pace was superb and the image at the end took my breath away again.

Well done, thank you.
I didn't realize how long it was until I scrolled back. The story flowed effortlessly....what a treat. Thank you for sharing this!
Reading a story like yours is what keeps me from getting too frustrated from all the BS on OS. Thanks for making my day a better one.

Rated Highly
You reveal an immense talent as well as truths too-easily ignored or forgotten. A wonderful karma awaits you, my friend.
thank you for the visits everyone! Please check back later and i will catch up with everyone personally......G
This is intensely beautiful and moving. I wish I had more words, but others have already used them.
This is a masterpiece.

Gary, you use such vivid details, you build this so well, incorporating conceptual material and ordinary grit and history and realistic characters. It is beautiful and full of heart and I am so glad I read it today.

I don't believe in Karma, and in fact think it is a despicable idea. But your story is so effective on so many levels, I rode with your premise all the way through, because of the skill and feeling you put in this. Close to magic,what you have done here.
another simply wonderful story, thanks
—My tears renew
Eyes blind are reborn
A callous heart softens
My tears renew—

thank you... Rated!
Bravo. I'm so happy I stumbled upon your page. I loved this. In fact, I almost shed a tear at the end.

And this didn't get an EP because...anyway, it's one of the better things I've read anywhere in a while and thank you for sharing it with us.
oh, Gary.

Thank you for your immense and heartwrung gifts. Thank you.
Life happens...Karma's a bitch! What a strong story, Gary, with so many angles, lessons and depth. Thank you for this sharing.
Oh that's just beautiful. You know that, right? Wow.

Interested in the choice of image at the end of the piece. Caught me by surprise.

What a rich piece.
Just beautiful, and meaningful and magical.
First of all , I wanted to apologize for noticing some of you twice, or about any notice at all. I have been trying for the last few months to just allow the feed to do the trick.

Verbal, you are very fine to give this sort of feedback…. And m.a.h, it is possible, and probable, even if a person does not believe…

Hello Ben, I do not know if there are any ore folks like the character Mr. Toad (his name was different in real life). They were confirmed bachelors, damaged by the war, or by people back from the war. Self-motivators, aggressive, but also selfless in their courage in the face of crisis. One felt secure around them.

Stacey, I hope the fast scrolling was for interest and not disgust! Just kidding. Thank you!

Yo Bill, And I am there with you through your wonderful works. Thank yo bill1

Owl, I am honored to reach you with my meanderings and scribbles..All the best to you.

Hello Buffy….I am very pleased to be a part of something that gives you comfort.
Be well…..

Comm, It means a lot to hear you lost track of time. Thanks!

Little, That’s a very nice thing to say, and I hope all of us can sustain the flow of good will on this great forum.

JK, I am honored to follow Lea, but also to be visited by you. Best wishes…
Tom, always an honor my exceedingly bright friend!

Hello Sally! We are using up all of our words on one-another aren’t we?
I know I will need to keep coming up with word to talk about your fine works!

Greg, if this is a masterpiece, it is because of the great influence of writers like you.
Poetic souls like yours are rare, and I feel we are all very blessed to be the first ones to read your pieces. Thank you Greg, your comment touches me deeply…

Hello Roy, I would like to have the complexity of thought you bring to your work.
I admire it very much…and thank you.

Mr Mustard, I’m very moved when you comment with have before, and it is precious to me. Such a thoughtful and caring response for all of us.

Hi ClarissaH, I’m happy about it too! You’re welcome!

Connie, I am so happy to see you come ‘round!!! You’re are Welcome my dear……

Hi Cathy, yeas it is, and I am still thinking a lot about your great piece on race. And congratulations on the newest Grandchild!!!
Hi Beth! There are reflections of people in the floor towards the back of the space.

Thank you Lea, and congratulations on a very compelling and heartrending piece!!
This is lovely. And it is the second karma post I've read today. It must be something in the air today. Your teacher sounds like one of the good ones.
Emma, please forgive me for missing you.....From your lips to their ears/eyes, and you are welcome!
Natasha, It was in the air today.....don't know why either.
My teachers have all been one of the Good Ones...
Wow Gary, this was such a beautifully written captured so much here. Stories were within stories here. The dog who saved the soldiers' lives, the student who really learned about life from his teacher...and a young boy who got to be a witness of it all. No book could teach lessons like this. The picture of the green linoleum floor is stunning. Thank you!
This just killed me, Gary. The beauty underneath all that ugliness, the lessons taught and learned captured by your incredible memory are haunting. Your stunning, rhythmic words and your beautiful heart are reflected from that shiny floor. They gleam. xoxo
Mare, I am so happy to see you come by…we were blessed by the character of those old bachelor teachers. They knew how to instill values in a kid’s mind, and I am grateful…so grateful.

Patricia, I was so happy to see your work on the cover, and I hope to catch up today.
Thank you for your wonderful comments. That floor was the greatest stage for the imagination. I cried when the wrecking ball hit the old building in the 70’s…
Oh Gary. Thank you for this. It's just what I needed today.

And yes, every opportunity to show kindness should be seized.

Highly rated and appreciated.
This is, hands down, the most exquisite thing I have ever read on Open Salon or anywhere else. I wish I could keep all of those perfect lines in my head forever ... I know I should say more, but all that is coming to mind is 'thank you' ... from the bottom of my heart.
xoxo ~ Ann
Thanks Gracie, I am so glad to help you start your day on a positive note!

Ann, It is good to see you and thank you for the kind words....this means a great deal to me.....oxox
Oh Gary! This is magnificent in every way. Where are those editors? They've overlooked a truly wonderful and important story. I'm bookmarking this one for future reads. It is so lovely. Thank you so much for sharing it with all of us. XOXO
My oh my, but I am glad you asked me to take a look at this Gary. I only wish I didnt do it on my lunch break so I wouldnt have had to hold back the tears (only one or two escaped).
My God! You are not only a magnificent artist but you can write like nobody's business! Such feeling! Thus, why I love OS. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks Lisa, I was reading about you the other day………..Humm……It was all good, as should be and always is!

Time, You are so sweet to keep visiting me on this great forum. I hope your lunch was an edifying experience….

MAWB, One of my favorite folks on OS! Thank you neighbor!!!!!
This is perfect. It took my breath away and brought tears. THere is so much flat out wisdom in this---I know I'll bet hinking about it all day.
You deftly keep several very richly conceived and to me difficult to talk about concepts organized, and dare I say floating freely yet purposefully within the construct of your story. Good boy!
Jane, I am happy you found some use for this in your day, and thanks for the comment!

Thank you Roger. I was thinking a lot about you work as I wrote this. You’re a great inspiration to me. I still thinks about the piece where “The Cardinal is screaming……….”

Marti, Who….Me? thanks for the originality and intelligence of that observation.
I could not have analyzed anything that quickly
Also Roger, I wanted to say again I hope all goes well on your sabbatical.
What an amazing read, I've bookmarked it. "a recognition of suffering and injustice… and with gentle resolve, they lie quietly at our feet, dreaming magnificent combinations of swift motion, adoration, and devotion" -- perhaps the most beautiful and true words I've ever read about the beautiful and true nature of dogs. I know people have souls, or else we wouldn't be able to recognize dogs for the beings they are.
Sandra, years ago, one of my friends had an old dog, the favorite of his dad, who was a retired farmer. When we would all sit around my friend's dad, with his old dog sleeping at his feet, the dog would begin dreaming, with feet running in place, muffled barks and wimpers. My friend's dad would gently stroke his old friend on his ribs and sofly say, "That's it boy, you go get'll get ol'Fox."

I have never forgotten the man's love and tenderness for his best friend...
Wow Gary. I didn't want it to end. You are an amazing writer. Bravo! Got my attention right away and held onto it the whole way.

I'm very happy you came by John. Your comments are very encouraging, and I'm liking your writing very much!
Gary, you're just one of the most constantly brilliant writers I've encountered. This is incredible and I can't find the words to praise it enough.

(thumbified for good dogs, good lessons and good guys like you)
This is more than a story. It's a parable -- a wonderful and beautifully written parable.
Jodi, your support is very meaningful, and it encourages more work, always improving. Thanks so much.

Steve, good to see you again…always…I’m truly honored by your comment.
I would love to be able to write humor as well as you do. I admire the originality….the strangeness, with orneriness and twists!
I will never forget Mr. Toad. This has to be a movie, someday.
The first paragraph in this stunning story became your comment on my recent post - thanks for pointing me in this direction. I'm a sucker for teacher stories. I was a principal before retirement and when I read something like this, it reinforces what I believe about great educators. They do important work in the world. I've been cruising you blog for the better part of the evening and my tree remains undecorated. Rated