When traffic stopped on the Veterans Memorial Bridge on Monday night, I couldn’t tell at first what was going on. Then the elongated, shadowy figure of a dog emerged. The car in front of me on Interstate 89 north pulled ahead and I followed.
But after crossing the bridge, I saw the lights of a vehicle on the freeway just beyond the White River Junction on-ramp. I pulled over in the recovery lane and parked my car with its hazard lights on. There were no police on the scene yet, so I thought I should call him.
My impulse that night made me a witness to a story that has since surfaced in outlets as far afield as New Zealand: a heroic dog leads the police to its injured owner.
When I saw this story on Facebook Tuesday morning, posted by the New Hampshire State Police, I was surprised and, I admit, a little appalled.
What I had seen standing in the escape 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 had suffered a concussion, scratches on his back and stitches in one hand; his passenger, Justin Connors, from Norwich, remains hospitalized and has had at least two surgeries – we had heard the name of Shiloh Shepherd from Laundry, Tinsley.
Humans have always been sensitive to sentimental narratives that overshadow the prosaic details of ordinary events. Perhaps the combination of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the power of the internet is making these narratives more mainstream. The recent death of Joan Didion, who devoted most of her writing career to unraveling stories filled with sentiment, should remind us that we owe it to the world to try to see through it.
Perhaps from where he was sitting, New Hampshire State Trooper Tom Sandberg believed that Tinsley was asking him and a Lebanese police officer to follow her to the scene of the crash. . I have no reason to doubt him. It was dark and cold, and I was standing a few hundred yards away.
I fumbled to call the authorities. I called the Hartford police first, a number I’ve dialed so many times on the job that I can’t forget. But I was tired and having trouble concentrating 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 Vermont soldier to arrive.
While on the phone I could hear people talking around the wrecked vehicle. I stayed standing in the recovery 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 that with me. I wasn’t even very warmly dressed, and at one point I had to get back in the car and turn on the heater to warm myself up. My lack of preparation marked me as a journalist that I am; I am not a lifeguard.
I don’t remember if the New Hampshire officers appeared on the bridge while I was on the phone or shortly after. 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 a Vermont Transportation Agency employee. And I’ve never heard from VTrans. on where Grizzy was found.)
At one point, one of the cruisers sounded its siren and appeared to dart back and forth to chase Tinsley off the bridge. It was hard 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 about the incident, but got no response. .)
Shortly after the siren, the cruisers rolled down the highway and into the recovery lane. The officers put on their jackets and went down to shore to help Connors and Laundry.
I didn’t see Tinsley until after the police went to Laundry’s wrecked truck and spoke to him. She trotted along the guardrail off the Interstate 91 ramp, across from where I was standing, then to the truck. It seemed to me that she had heard Laundry’s voice and had gone to him. He was desperate, sometimes moaning, “I’m sorry! I am sorry!”
Soon the ambulances from Hartford arrived. The Vermont State Police must have arrived too. I saw Connors placed on a panel and transported in an ambulance. By then, it was nearly 11 p.m., and although I didn’t speak with a state trooper, I got in my car and drove home.
The story that made the rounds on social media on Tuesday morning contradicted what I had seen, but I let it go. In a shorthand newspaper, it’s hard to know where to start digging each morning. And once hundreds of people have gushed about the exploits of a heroic dog on social media, it’s hard to begin to piece together what looks like a counter-narrative. On Tuesday, we wrote what we could confirm, which was a version of Tinsley’s heroism, but 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 Laundry with driving under the influence, we were able to begin to unravel the story. I spoke with Laundry and with Kristen Connors, Justin’s ex-wife, and we were able to share 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 arrived after seeing the wrecked truck. It turned out that the accident was much more than a story of a dog’s heroism or its enduring love for its owner.
The violent wreckage, believed to have been fueled by drunk driving, led to criminal charges against one man, serious injury to another and costing the life of a dog.
Reconstructing the story of an event is a risky business, which relies on the witnesses and their ability to put their feelings aside. Everyone loves to bask in the warm glow of good deeds and righted wrongs, 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 being picked up by national media. A month ago, CBS News aired a segment about how customers at Dan & Whit’s, Norwich’s rightly revered general store, stepped in to stock shelves and work the register when staff were short . The story had previously circulated on Vermont Public Radio, Boston TV affiliates and elsewhere. Robert Reich, a graduate of Dartmouth College and former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, also picked up the story as an example of what happens when a community comes together.
The story is true, but incomplete. Lost in this cover were the vast resources of Norwich. In 2017, Norwich had the highest median household income in the state, $141,660.
This isn’t Tunbridge, where a couple are trying to revive the North Tunbridge Store and the town has been without a store 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 town to work in an otherwise poorly paid retail business for nothing but the hot fuzzs.
It’s OK if national outlets want to believe dogs can save their owners and communities can rally 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 beginning in the 1960s, has taught us anything, it’s this: Question easy, emotionally simple history. That may be true, but it’s probably not the whole truth.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3207.