Visual and Theater Arts
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Dogs and Old Men
For as long as I can remember our family has loved dogs. We are dog people. We are hard-working, middle-class, semi-religious, and mother respectful, American dog lovers. Where did this all begin? Why are some human beings drawn into this symbiotic relationship with dogs while others are not? Can you identify a dog lover by just looking at them? Is it genetic? Do we as dog lovers wish ill on those non-dog lovers that somehow must exist, but we can’t image why? Can a dog lover also love cats? Are we being untrue to our canine brethren by caring for an occasional cat? Can a dog lover marry into a family of cat lovers? If you feel we have thought about this way too much, you are not one of us.
I love dogs too. I love all animals, but I love dogs the best. Admittedly cats are somewhat endearing, in their own skillful, cunning, kitty-like fashion. I had a hamster that I was quite fond of; Cicero was his name. I had rabbits too, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Blacky (He was black, what was I going to do?). I was never a great horse admirer, but I can see the attraction. Horses have strength, power, and a kind of nobility. I had a girlfriend once who had horses and I could never quite measure up (I’m still working that one out). My uncle Barney had this notorious minor bird I could listen to for days. Barney was a stout, kind-hearted old man, with a thick German accent made worse by a pipe that never left his clenched teeth. His wife, my Aunt Mae, was even stouter, both physically and intellectually, and bandied her redheaded temper and Scottish brogue with military precision like lethal weapons. The bird was forever hurling repeated obscenities across the room; however, the bird’s English was so unintelligible it never offended anyone. It is though, without a measure of doubt, dogs, which have garnered the largest part of my devotion to the animal kingdom, humans included.
I can watch movies for hours, hundreds slaughtered – thousands – not even a twitch of compassion. Zulu: Michael Caine, Stanley Baker, dead Zulus piled up for days – nothing – and I always cheer for the other side when the British are involved. Star Wars: Death Stars, worlds destroyed, Luke’s arm, storm troopers mowed down like skinny kids with glasses in a dodge ball tournament – I’m apathetic. Halloween: Jaime-Leigh Curtis, scary guys in Hockey masks, young girls with huge breasts and loose morals, torn and slashed in new and inventive ways – zero – zilch, nada, not a tear, I’m completely unmoved. Human carnage just doesn’t have a huge impact on my sensibilities – within the context of film watching that is. On the other hand, let there be one dog, any dog, with a hurt paw-paw, or whatever, and I’m a complete and utter emotional mess.
I have a long documented history of over-emotional reactions to any and all forms of doggie destruction. My children think I’m hilarious; they laugh at me and even bait me, goading me, until I can no longer hide my canine vulnerability. It’s like kryptonite to Superman. It is my Achilles Heel. You know that Walt Disney movie version of The Incredible Journey, titled Homeward Bound? That scene where Shadow, the older dog, falls in that pit, injuring himself, but he urges the other dog Chance, and the cat Sassy, to go on without him and then later their family is waiting for them after they’ve been gone so long and have come so far and the cat Sassy comes over the hill and runs to the girl she loves and the dog Chance runs over the hill and runs to the little boy he loves, but the boy who loves the older dog Shadow and has been his friend all of his life and loves him more than anything doesn’t see any sign of Shadow and figures he must be dead, because he’s so old and just couldn’t make it. Do you know the scene? Well, when I’ve seen it, I’m shaky, but okay up to that point. Then, it happens – you see an image at the top of the hill, you can’t tell exactly what it is at first, but you know; you know what it has to be. The boy doesn’t see it, he’s given up, and he’s lost all hope. Then someone shouts; it’s Shadow! Shadow is severely injured, but through sheer will, determination, and love of a boy, he’s slowly limping over the hill, moving perpetually forward, using every last bit of strength to make it home, home to his boy. He’s sitting in a railway station, got a ticket for his destination; he’s Homeward Bound.
Ok, the kryptonite has done its work; I’m now ready for the paramedics. I’m a bawling, mewling, catawamptic cacophony of emotional purgation, unbecoming a father trying to keep his reputation as a fearless destroyer of closet monsters and an unexcitable, head square in the middle of his shoulders, bicycle wreck medic. It’s awful. I refuse to watch it anymore. Periodically my children will try to trick me into seeing the scene again, but I’m far too clever; I know that soundtrack music a mile away.
“Dad, could you get some paper towel? I spilled Cran-Grape on the sofa.”
Instinctively, as I have done many times, I run to the kitchen grab the paper towel, swiftly turn, pivoting off my right foot, and make a mad dash for the den where the television resides. This time though, something is not right, something is amiss.
“What’s that sound?” I was on to them.
“What sound? Hurry up Dad, the Cran-Grape juice is really sinking in.” I thought I heard shushing in the background.
Wait a minute. A freely volunteered confession of Cran-Grape in the den? This stinks to high-heaven. My children are diabolical, cold, calculating vermin.
“That sounds like the music that plays when damn Shadow is about to come over that damn hill again, that’s what.”
“Te-he-he-he-he-he-he-he-giggle-laugh-snort.” They were no longer able to contain themselves.
I am such an amusement.
It gets worse. The same affliction discombobulates me even when the animal simply has dog-like qualities. You know, the ant, in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? While the children are reduced in size and they’re making they’re way back home through the back yard, they befriend an ant and the ant eventually saves their lives, sacrificing his life fighting off a scorpion.
“It’s alright Daddy, he was just an ant.” My daughter consoles me, patting me on the back while we sit in the lobby. The unavoidable wait for wives while they stand in the after the movie bathroom line means we have time to contemplate the films implications.
“He wasn’t just an ant though. He sacrificed himself for them. He was a good ant, don’t you think?
“Yes, Daddy, a good ant. The best ant ever.” Her head turns away from me.
Did she roll her eyes at me just then? Is my seven-year old daughter’s consolation condescending?
“Well, if a scorpion was attacking you, I would sacrifice myself, you know.” Thank goodness my wife emerges. I was beginning to leave the realistic plain of everyday daughter/daddy conversations.
The reality of the entire doggie devotion thing is they are not dogs – really. We endow our dogs with human qualities. We make them over into human beings. We care so much about them because they are so much like us, we see ourselves in them. Favorite animal characters found in literature are interesting to us because they are essentially human. Do dogs care about underlying narcissistic reasons forging the foundational basis for our two species’ long-term relationship since the beginning of humankind? I kind of doubt it. Maybe they see themselves in us?
So I continue in my dog-loving existence, avoiding doggie demise as best as I can. I know if you are to love a dog, you must suffer the eventual death of the animal. I concede to that logic, but I also choose not to recognize it. Trips to the video store are always fun.
“Dad how about this one?” My son holds out a shiny video case from the children’s section.
“Old Yeller! Are you insane?” I lean back in horror.
“We haven’t ever seen this one.” He stares at the cover. “It looks good.”
“You know why we have never seen it? Do you? The dog di-i-i-i-i-i-ies, that’s why. He dies horribly. Forget it, not on my watch buddy.” People in the store are staring.
“How about this one, The Yearling. We haven’t seen it either.”
“What is this, some sort of conspiracy? No, no Yearling. Look, why don’t you go over to the action section and find something with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Something violent, I don’t care, we won’t tell your mother.”
I know; if you are not a dog lover it’s difficult to understand. I share my life, as does my family, indivisibly, happily, with our dogs. I have done many strange things in the name of quantum dogness, but believe me, I am nothing compared to my father, the universally recognized Grand Poo-bah of all dog lovers.
My father has almost always owned a dog. Dogs always surround him. Even when he doesn’t own a dog, they gravitate to him. It’s like water running downhill or magnetic north. The attraction must be just too great for a dog to resist. His appearance though, in human terms, is quite unassuming (except for his name, Dave, tattooed on his right arm, that he chalks up to temporary youthful insanity). He’s a tall, handsome man with thin blond hair, narrow features, and a quiet inner strength obvious to those who know him. You receive neither loud admonitions nor lofty praise from my father; he’s just always there when you need him. He reminds me of Boo Radley waiting in the corner behind the door, saving your life in some clandestine way without your being aware he was there – watching over you.
He really did save my life once. Once when we were up in Canada at Aubrey Falls, my older brother ran across a log that stretched over the rapids downstream with me in hot pursuit. He made it across all right, but as I got half way the log slipped and partially fell into the river. The water was boiling up over the top of the log and I was stuck, frozen, screaming bloody murder, unable to do the sensible thing, back up the way I’d come. Just then I felt an arm come up under my shoulders and around my chest.
“I gotcha.” My father held me tight and spoke to me softly as he tiptoed us back off the log to the safety of the bank.
The only thing I could think to say was, “Thanks Dad.”
In his best Gary Cooper my dad replied, “Don’t mention it partner.”
My father had this happy face he couldn't hide when I looked up at him in a loving way. I desperately loved that face. He is a truly remarkable, unremarkable person. His features and demeanor will never turn a single human head, but believe you me, to dogs it must be like he has canine catnip in his pockets. He’s the “Pied Piper” of dog lovers.
When I was in college, during one of the brief instances when my father has not owned a dog, I came home from school for a weekend visit. It was November, the first time I’d been home all semester. I had just parked my car (that continue sputtering for two or three minutes until it finally died convulsively, as if it was performing Swan Lake) when my father comes out from under the garage door waving, accompanied by a new friend.
“Hey Dad, you got a new dog?” A white chow runs up and sticks his nose in my crotch. I stop dead still until I can guide the dog’s nose in a more productive direction.
“Nope.” My father isn’t the kind of guy who dwells on details.
“Yeah, so whose dog is this?” Two more dogs scamper up, barking and biting, competing for first smell honors of the new guy. “And whose dogs are these?
“Just some neighborhood dogs.” More dogs appear from around the house. A spaniel, what sort of looks like a boxer mixed with a dachshund, and a collie.
“What’s with this? Are you feeding these dogs?”
“Nope. They just come over to say howdy while their parents are away from home.” (Parents: meaning dog owners – to those unschooled in dog lover-ese) As we unload laundry from the car for my mother, two more dogs join the sideshow.
“Look, you have got to be kidding with this. Don’t they go home?” I have to hold the laundry above my head. All the dogs collectively stick their noses in my crotch.
“They go home around Suppertime.” The collie has started to snarl and fight with the chow. Now my father intercedes. “Behave May Bell, you jealous pot. Who the hell do you think you are – Queen of Sheba? Sookie has done nothing to you, not a damn thing. Everybody needs to be on his or her best behavior. It’s not everyday we get a visit from our too smart to come home once in a while to see his mother, son.” My father stops to noodle with the spaniel. “You know, I been thinking of getting another dog of my own.”
I rolled my eyes to the back of my head and thought – thank God!
My father was always a generous man. He shared what time he had with my brother and me, when he had it. My mother was largely responsible for spending “quality time” with my sister, except we didn’t know what that was back then. I guess I figured anytime spent with my dad was quality time. When I was young, on a Saturday morning, or after dinner before dark, he would be out working on the car in the driveway and if I didn’t have anything else to do, I would go watch him.
After a while my dad would notice me standing there and say, “Douglas, come over here, would ya?” He’d wipe his greasy hands off on a rag, take my hand and place it on whatever part of the engine he was working.
“That’s a spark plug. See it? I’m replacing the old ones with this wrench.” He’d show me the tool he was using. “It’s a spark plug wrench.” Then he’d point back at the engine. “There are sixteen spark plugs in this engine. Two for each cylinder.”
I would stare at the engine and then look up at my father – a smile would sneak out from the corners of my mouth. After a moment, that smile would be reciprocated from my father back to me. He would then squeeze my shoulder and command, “Ok, back to work.”
Whenever my father took the time to include me in whatever he was doing, even if I didn’t understand a damn thing he said, as far as I was concerned, it was time well spent – quality time.
My father never had the same relationship with his father, my grandfather Ben.
The Great Depression left my grandfather with too much time on his hands. Time he filled at the pub, not with my father. At the age of seventeen my father quit high school, lied about his age, went into the Navy, and joined World War II. Before he left for the Pacific he asked my grandfather to start his Plymouth once in a while to keep the battery up and to take care of his dog Jigger. Jigger was a hairy little nothing my father found in an alley behind row houses off Wyoming Avenue, near their home in Detroit.
By the time my father finally got home on leave, nearly two years later, his car was dead as stone and the dog was nearly the same. Jigger was half starved, half eaten alive by fleas, and almost completely consumed with mange. My father had to have the little dog put to sleep. My grandfather had no excuse. Frankly, he was unaware there was a problem.
My father survived World War II. Love and respect for his father did not. He never was close to my grandfather again.
My father has a new dog now. He discovered him wandering through his neighbors' field, a dazed, rain soaked, emaciated black smudge, ravaged by heartworm. Our veterinarian found the dog to have injuries consistent with severe abuse – the neglect was obvious. So my father, at the age of 78, undertakes the arduous task of rehabilitating this suffering, diseased, black and blackened, Labrador retriever. Dad wasn’t going to keep him at first, he was going to bring him back to full health and then find him a good home (yeah, right). When I first saw the dog I bent down and whispered in his ear.
“Don’t worry fella, you’ve hit the jackpot.”
After the horrendous heartworm treatments were completed, the black smudge, now known as Rob Roy (named after the Scottish Robin Hood, not the cocktail), was restored by my father to a vital, robust, unbelievably happy (and not ungrateful) animal. Roy is now an 80 lb. integral, adoring fixture in my father’s daily routine. It’s my dad's turn to be watched over for a change. The dog never lets him out of his sight. My father’s every move is instantly mirrored by his drooling, tongue hanging, tail wagging, furry new shadow, as if Peter Pan’s Wendy sewed him on herself. More and more the old man finds a place in my peripheral vision as well.
I realize that this dog will more than likely outlive my father. I know if you are to love a man, such as my father, you must suffer his eventual death. I concede to that logic, but I also choose not to recognize it. What I prefer, is to watch an old man sitting under a shade tree on a warm summer day, reaching down and stroking the head of a large black dog, a man that sees a reflection of his own worthiness in the eyes of that dog, a father that smiles with that same loving face I grew to know so well.