The Gradual Return of Community

We can’t let this fear become our new normal

By Rob Breeding

I made a supply run to a big box warehouse store the other day, replenishing staples: pasta, good pecorino Romano cheese, without which pasta is virtually worthless, and a large bag of dog food to keep Doll happy.

The dog food caught the attention of our cashier, whose work outfit made clear he’d been called in from the tire center to work the till. Through the now ubiquitous plexiglass shield he asked what kind of dog I owned, and when I replied “English setter,” he asked, “Do you hunt?”

In the pre-pandemic world, that question would have led to the kind of conversation that extends well beyond the exchange of money and receipt, often to the chagrin of patrons still in line.

Instead, I rather hesitantly told him yes, and that I was planning to add a puppy to the team this summer. The cashier offered that he ran German shorthairs and had his own new dog plans in the works. But instead of inquiring further, I said “thanks,” tore off my receipt (another pandemic development) and hurried to the exit.

In another time I would have pulled out my phone to share photos and brag on Doll, inquired further regarding his new dog plans and maybe even exchanged contact info. You never know when a brief exchange might eventually open the gate to some mythical, inaccessible hunting spot.

As we walked to the truck my daughter asked about the price tag for the cashier’s new dog, $4,000, and suggested he might have been “flexing,” which I learned is a word the kids use in place of bragging. Maybe, but if I’d actually had a normal human conversation the cashier would have no doubt explained the new dog was either started, meaning it had received months of introductory bird dog training, or possibly finished, meaning it was fully ready to hunt.

I’m not sure. I “trained” both my bird dogs, and will do the same with the new pup, so I’ve never priced a started or finished dog. But if I’d let the conversation linger just a little longer — not even so long as to provoke exasperated sighs from the line behind me — I’m sure he would have explained.

I recently cut off another cash register exchange in a non-Montana Cabela’s when the cashier asked about my phone number’s 406 area code. I said Montana, which she probably already knew, as she then shared that her daughter once lived in Ronan, and is now raising her family in Bozeman.

She gave me plenty to work with. I’ve hunted Ninepipe plenty of times, and, since my last three haircuts have been do-it-yourself jobs, I was wearing a ball cap sporting the logo of Bozone Amber Ale, one of Montana’s finest adult beverages. 

Instead of pointing to my lid and chatting, however, I backed toward the door. Again, another sentence or two and this would have been a pleasant exchange. I’ve worked retail and I remember how much those brief connections can provide, balancing out the occasional drudgery of the job.

This is something many of us are missing as we take appropriate precautions to control the pandemic. In my case it was two short encounters with strangers when I might of otherwise gone on about two things I love: bird dogs and Montana.

Instead of engaging, I backed away.

We can’t let this fear become our new normal. Fortunately, I have faith in the work of our research scientists, including those at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, working on a coronavirus vaccine that shows promise. But for now, we need to be careful, and remember, “for now” might be longer than we’d prefer.

So long as “for now” does persist, masks, distance and caution are our friends, and being a little unfriendly just might be the friendliest thing of all.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.

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