"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dog Gone

When I was age 7 or maybe 8 we got a new dog. I say “new” because we had dogs before but I don’t really remember them. I’ve seen pictures of myself as a toddler with two prior pups, one named “Chiefy” and the other named “Blackie”. Somewhere along the way I decided that one of those dogs had bitten me in the chestal area during some overly rambunctious play. At least, this is what I told the doctor when I got my tonsils removed at age 6. A physician came into my room to perform a pre-surgical exam and asked me about a mark on my chest, directly below my right nipple. I told him I’d been chomped by my dog when I was “little”, whereas what he was actually looking at was (and still is) a third nipple. I did not know at that young age that anyone could have more than the mandatory two, although even then I did have some sense that boy nipples were different from girl nipples.

Anyway, back to where this started -- my dad came home with a cuddly brown mutt and told me I could decide what to call him. This stumped me. A few days went by and my dad built a house for the new pup, and I was supposed to write his name on a small sign we’d hang over the entrance. As the house neared completion my dad kept asking if I’d decided yet; I kept saying, “Soon, Dad! I’m still thinkin’ about it!” Finally he was ready to attach the signage and it was time for the big reveal. I said, “I’m going to call him… ‘Buttons’!” Which was the name of another dog three houses up the street. That’s the best I could do under pressure. As you can imagine, having two dogs living so close with the same name created some confusion. We’d call out for “Buttons! Buttons!!” and neither dog would respond. They were likely lying next to each other under a shady tree; when they heard us yell they'd just look at each other and ruefully shake their heads.

Buttons was a great dog, a real dog dog. Nothing flashy about him, not high strung, was happy no matter what. He didn't chew up Mom’s shoes or Dad’s slippers or any of my toys. He was house-broken (when my dad told me we were going to “house-train” the dog, I thought that meant we were preparing Buttons to move someplace else, like into his own apartment, and I burst into tears). Back in that day (several decades ago) people were more relaxed about pets, dogs especially, than they are now. There was no such thing as a “dog park”, and “leash laws” were feebly enforced. Most families who had dogs in our suburban tract let them run freely. The dogs knew where they lived and came around to their own domiciles for meals, grooming, sleeping (but not baths – turn on the hose with just the thought of giving your dog a bath and he’d take off out of the yard and down the street as if a truck full of squirrels had just overturned on the highway). Sometimes Buttons would have what I call a “bachelor weekend” – he wouldn’t come home for two or three nights, and then all of a sudden he’d show up, sauntering into the yard like he’d just been around the corner. He’d have a big drink of water, maybe something to eat, and then he’d sleep it off for several days. I’d ride my bike into the far reaches of our development and kids who I’d never seen before would come running out of their front yards to scream, “It’s Buttons! Hi, Buttons! Remember me, boy?” I didn’t know these kids, but they all knew my dog. How did they learn his name? Maybe he could talk! So why didn’t he talk at home? I guess it was because he didn’t need to.

Buttons lasted all the way into the start of my college years. One evening my dad called and in the course of the conversation told me he’d taken Buttons to the vet, who had discovered a stomach tumor. “Now, don’t tell your mother – I don’t want to upset her.” I got the feeling that, had I been diagnosed with a serious illness at some point, my mother would have said, “Now, don’t tell the dog – I don’t want to upset him.” A few weeks later my folks had Buttons put to sleep. A few dog-less years went by and all of a sudden my parents had a new dog, a little shitty dog. I believe his name was “Little Shitty Dog”. He would growl and yip and snap whenever I came to visit. My parents adored him, and I imagine after my visits they’d say, “Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? At least you don’t have to see John every day.”

Several years later my mom died (I’m not sure who told the dog about that), and the mutt (OK, his name was “Dusty”) continued to be my dad’s close companion. Dad helped Carol and me buy our first house, and Dad and Dusty moved in with us. Dad would walk Dusty once or twice a day, but he’d also let him out to roam the community on his own. One day, Dusty didn’t come back. Several days went by and still no sign of him. We drove all around the neighborhood, calling his name; checked with the pound – no luck. We eventually came to accept that Dusty was gone for good. My theory was that the dog, who was prone to seizures, had an episode while out for a jaunt, collapsed somewhere in the woods and didn’t recover. My dad, however, had his own theory: “Someone had their eye on him and took him!” Yes, I’m sure one of our neighbors was just waiting for an opportunity to snatch up an ill-tempered fur-mop with serious health issues who would snap at them without provocation.

My dad re-married and moved to Florida. After he left, we got a new dog; her name was Jingles. We picked her out at the pound and she was overjoyed to move in with us. She was a bundle of energy and we did NOT let her roam the neighborhood unattended. She was either on a run in the backyard or on a leash as we walked her. Well, that's not entirely true... she would come inside but if someone was at the door and we weren't paying attention - ZOOM!! She'd be out the door in a flash, running as if a truck full of squirrels had just overturned on the highway. We'd hurriedly scramble outside, calling and searching for her, usually fruitlessly. She'd normally come back of her own accord after a few hours.

One day after she'd dashed out yet again a woman came to the front door, holding on to Jingles for dear life. "Is this your dog?" she asked. We affirmed it was and thanked her for returning our baby. However, this was not an altruistic act on her part -- "Your dog killed my cat!" she wailed. We were shocked, as was this woman when she saw our two cats, Oscar and Felix, saunter into view in the living room. "You have CATS?" We apologized profusely and resisted the temptation to ask her if she was sure it had been our dog (a neighbor later told us he'd witnessed a different dog harassing her kitty). We offered to replace her cat or compensate her in some way, which she declined. The matter didn't go any further than her one visit.

About a year later circumstances led to our decision to move to South Carolina. The logistics of that move are too complicated to recount here; the relevant issue is that we needed to move into an apartment and couldn't find one that would allow us to bring both the cats and the dog. From the perspective of hindsight, we should have just moved in with all the pets and asked for forgiveness rather than permission... but instead we chose to keep the cats with us and looked for someone to adopt Jingles. That was another hair-raising tale; suffice it to say we found her a loving home and she was very happy with her new owners.

After a year in the apartment we bought a house and got back to the business of having it overrun with animals. We went from two cats to four and got a new dog, named Rosie. She was a black lab, again from the pound, and was another beautifully-tempered, sweet-as-can-be pup. She loved loved loved the cats, who in return despised her and attacked her relentlessly. Undaunted, she continued her quixotic pursuit of their friendship.

We had Rosie for about ten years when the set of circumstances that led to our move to Boston began to coalesce. By that time, Josh had graduated from high school and started community college, and he decided to remain behind in South Carolina. He made arrangements with a buddy to live with him in a house owned by the buddy's dad, and it was fine with them for Josh to bring Rosie along as the third roommate. That meant Carol and I needed to find an apartment that was cool with cats, which was not a problem as long as we claimed to own only "two". We'd had a little turnover in the rotation over the years but were back up to four-strong in the feline count, so we said, "Yep! Two cats, that's all we've got. Two. Only two. A-one, a-two." I came up to start my new job a few months before Carol joined me, so she had the honor of packing the car for the drive to Boston and trying to herd those cats into carriers. She still has a scar on her left shoulder from where our dear little Chloe clawed into her in a desperate bid for freedom. But once they got to Boston the cats loved our loft apartment, with all sorts of nooks and crannies and hiding places to explore.

One evening, six months after completing the move, the phone rang. It was Josh calling from down South, to tell us how much he missed us and he was thinking about moving to Boston to be closer -- "Would that be OK with you?" With tears in our eyes we said of course. While there wasn't much room in our apartment, we'd figure out some kind of temporary arrangement until he could get settled. Once we'd agreed to his request he then casually mentioned he'd been canned from his job and oh by the way wasn't going to school any more either. Hmm -- well, again: that's another story entirely. The immediate concern was what would we do with Rosie? Our two-cat-limit Boston apartment had a very strict no-dogs-allowed policy, which we'd agreed to in writing when we signed the lease. Once more, we found ourselves jumping through hoops to find a new home for a dog. We felt badly the first time with Jingles; we were miserable over going through it again with Rosie. Fortunately, she ended up with a very nice woman who had another lab named Lucy, and she and Rosie became thick as thieves.

You may be aware of our current situation -- we managed to get the kid out of the house for good, but our cat count is now up to five (in a touch of irony, Cat #5 is Josh's -- Miles has been staying with us "temporarily" for the last five years. We call him our grandcat.). We have friends with dogs and let them slobber all over us. We gladly offer to dog-sit. We stop and talk with strangers on the street who are walking their dogs and swap ear- and belly-scratches (with the dogs, not the strangers) for sniffs and licks (by the dogs, not the strangers). We miss not having one of our own any longer... but considering our track record perhaps it would be best for any new canines to be placed with another, more deeply-rooted, adoptive family. And of course we have our fine feline friends to keep us busy at home.

Anyone want a cat?

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