04 January 2010

University of South Dakota

5 Aug 2009. Word problem time! If you are in Brookings and the University Bookstore in Vermillion closes in two hours, can you make it? Answer: Yes, but only if the stragglers from USD student orientation day are still shopping, thus keeping the doors open past closing time.

The bookstore cashier, the Oprah Winfrey show, and now the College Cup Project all recommend the fresh bread from Jones Food Center.

Frank tossed his dark greasy combover out of his face. He coughed out some sputum, gagging on it in the process. Several children looked behind and gave Frank dirty looks. They shuffled forward into the crowd.


The kids were gathered to see Vermillion, star of the newest hit of what would later be called TV's Golden Age. The show revolved around a heroic half coyote named for the town in which Animal Control workers captured him as a pup. But unlike the eight Rin Tin Tins who fought along soldiers and police, and the thirty-five Lassies who protected farm towns, the one and only Vermillion patrolled the Wild West. It was the mixture of adventures, westerns, and animal acting that proved irresistible to young American couch potatoes.

Vermillion's lack of suitable backup (trained wild dogs with similar angular bodies were hard to come by) was his greatest asset as well as a liability. His handlers knew this. His co-stars knew this. His enemies knew this.

At appearances, his young fans were assured they were seeing the real deal. And jobs for people like Frank were made easier. Instead of a dozen dogs, Frank only had a single animal's reputation to destroy.


Vermillion was kicking off his cross country trip to the Emmy Awards in L.A. with a sendoff in his hometown in South Dakota. A knotholed faux-wood stage was set up on the lawn in front of Old Main Hall. A chrome sided bus chugged into the parking lot. Kids cheered as the show's moppet sidekick, Timmy, portrayed by li'l Tommy Brokaw, exited the bus. Vermillion and his handlers followed. The cheers got louder as they walked onto the stage. Tommy read his notecards, thanking the town and urging the kids to get their parents to watch the Emmys in support of their favorite coyote descendant. Vermillion's handlers unhooked him from his leash and led him in a few tricks: flips, leaps, and catches.

While the audience was entranced, Frank made his way to the middle of the crowd. He suddenly noticed how he was two feet taller than the majority of the audience. His anxiety kicked in. His mission got cloudy in his head. It had to do with the vial in his pocket. Drink it? No, no. Is this scent good, bad? Is it supposed to go on the dog or the crowd or himself or that kid Tommy? He could not quite remember. The kids around him got more uncomfortable. Some left to tell their parents. One boy got uppity.

"Hey, I was here first!" The boy kicked Frank in the shin. Frank winced and moved a few feet away. He noticed some of the parents in the back moving toward him with unfriendly faces. He panicked. He hoped the mission somehow would be accomplished as he uncorked the vial. Frank flicked his wrist, spraying bear scent on the children in front of him. He shook out the last of the drops and didn't look back. Some parents yelled "Hey you!" to the taxi taking Frank back across town.

Vermillion's nose instantly picked up the scent of his species' greatest natural enemy, the bear. He hadn't experienced it since his first few months of life, but it was hardwired into the brains of every coyote. It clicked a switch in Vermillion that activated an unforeseen aggression. His handlers were not ready for it.

Vermillion jumped off the stage and into the crowd. He clamped onto the first leg he could get his jaws around. He flung the horrified child aside. He continued to bite like wild, ears down, barking fiercely. The kids screamed and dispersed, running to their parents. The chaos only confused and aggravated Vermillion. His handlers jumped down and struggled to corral him with ropes and a muzzle. Vermillion, now foaming, responded with bites to their calves. They finally had to violently sedate him with a tranquilizer syringe. The kids who were still nearby and were witness to the squeal and collapse of their TV hero started bawling.

Tommy stayed on stage the whole time, shocked like everyone else. He didn't flee, like his peers. His unflappability was what made him a great child actor. And, in this particular case, it helped him memorize the face of a strange man with a combover.


"You forgot what you were supposed to do? You idiot! The scent goes on your legs! What do you think you were wearing biteproof pants for?"

"I got nervous. Ever'body was lookin' at me like I was guilty of somethin' when I hadn't done anythin' yet."

"Now you
have done something. Now people will be looking at you. This is a disaster thanks to you. I got the paper right here: five kids and a handler taken to the hospital for stitches."
"I'm sorry, I know. So...I will understand if I only get 50% of the fee for - "

"50%?? Are you insane? That's why you called? You screwed up large and you're getting nothing! Like hell I'm going to be linked to an assault on some six-year-olds. Don't try to contact me again, Frank."

"Hello? ...Hello? ...Oh." Frank put down the receiver slowly. He walked into the kitchen and hocked a substantial loogie into the sink. Usually that gave him temporary relief. But not today.

USD's Old Main Hall

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