No one who knows me well would ever think of me as a dog person. Yet…
My first dog-recollection is from early childhood. I was just a toddler, but recall that my mother had a black cocker spaniel. The only thing that I remember about this dog is that Mom would feed it scrambled eggs. There is no one left on earth who can confirm or deny this hazy dog memory or the business with the scrambled eggs. Like the Gingerbread Man who ran away or the Jolly Jumping Man who bounded across the rooftops, it’s all just too hazy. But still, there is an image of a black cocker spaniel that may just have been a real dog.
I recently read an article declaring that if all humans disappeared tomorrow, about one billion dogs would be left on their own. This begs the question: Why did the humans disappear, and why didn’t their faithful, best-friends-forever dogs join them? Who makes up this nonsense?
When I turned seven I finally did get a dog that I actually remember. It was at a time when my favorite activity was watching Westerns, more commonly referred to as Cowboy movies or TV shows. I had a cowboy hat and, of course, six-guns in holsters, just like my Western heroes. (I challenge you to find such guns in a toy store now.) The guns were loaded with rolls of red caps that were fed into the mechanism and fired a pitiful “bang” when the trigger was pulled. If my friends or I ran out of caps while chasing each other around the house or backyard, it was the equivalent of “running out of bullets.”
Being an avid fan of Roy Rogers, I wanted my dog to have the same name as his—Bullet. But I got overruled, with the suggestion that Caps (as in “cap gun”) would be as close to Bullet as I was going to get.
Caps lived mostly in our semi-finished basement, where he was supposed to pee and poop on sheets of Newsday, our local Long Island newspaper. My recollection is that he mostly missed. Or “someone” didn’t do a very good job setting out or replacing the used newspaper. The idea of taking the dog out for a walk was not ingrained in our family consciousness.
My stronger memory is that, this being 1953, I would sit near the dog singing How Much Is That Doggy in the Window? a giant hit for Patti Page. Better known today for her recordings of Tennessee Waltz and Old Cape Cod, her recording of How Much is That Doggy sold over two million copies. Not bad.
It was written by Bob Merrill, who was no one-hit wonder. He also wrote other big hits, including Mambo Italiano as well as that classic you just don’t hear anymore, If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake. He also wrote the lyrics for Barbra Streisand’s People, as well as Jimmie Rodgers’ hit song Honeycomb. (Life didn’t end well for Merrill, but that’s another story.)
After tearing up furniture and causing other typical damage that dogs will do when living in a home that is dog-care-ambivalent, my father reported that he would be taking Caps to live on a farm, where he would be much happier. When I think about it today, I’m not sure if my father was referring to the dog or himself. At the time there might still have been potato farms on Long Island, but I’m skeptical. I believe he was referring to the same mythical “farm” that Tony Soprano’s childhood dog went to, although it was later revealed that Tony’s dog actually went to live with his father’s mistress, played on the show by Polly Bergen, who coincidentally died about one year after Patti Page.
When I was growing up, my family often visited Aunt Edith, one of my father’s five sisters, and her husband, Uncle Dan. Their collie, Laddie, would have been named Lassie except he was a boy. (This makes me wonder even now why I couldn’t have a dog named Bullet.)
I was assured that Laddie, much like Timmy’s Lassie, would never bite anyone. Until he bit me. I don’t remember much else about Laddie. I think he and I were kept apart after that incident.
It has been declared in literature and on film that all dogs go to heaven. (I assume this means as opposed to all humans.) That said, a cartoon I once saw pictured the usual features of hell—flames, caves, and devils with pitchforks. In the illustration, two men are watching a dog trot by. The first guy says, “Wait…I thought all dogs go to heaven!” The other guy responds, “Oh. That’s the dog that bit Mother Teresa.”
The doyenne of my mother’s side of the family, Aunt Gladys, always seemed to start off with two dogs, but eventually wound up with just one. Early on, she had two black Lab puppies, which she thoughtfully named Amos and Andy (totally not PC; but there was no PC in those days). A year later, only Amos remained. Or perhaps it was Andy. When Aunt Gladys and her husband, Uncle Irv, moved to Florida years later, they acquired two Chihuahuas—Chi-Chi and Cha-Cha. Not having bitten Mother Theresa, I assume Chi-Chi went to heaven because only Cha-Cha remained the next time I saw my aunt.
When I lived in the Oakland Hills, the relative quiet was often interrupted by the intermittent barking of dogs. This would generally last for a minute or so, then end, then restart. My understanding is that dogs bark for a reason—they want to go in, or they want to go out, or they want your attention, or they’re trying to tell you that Timmy once again fell down the well.
I recall one night hearing a distant bark, followed 15 seconds later by a second bark, followed 15 seconds later by yet another bark. If I wanted to drive you crazy, I would time these barks every 15 to 20 seconds for the rest of your life, because that’s what was going on. Once my wife starts reading a book, she doesn’t hear anything. That includes me, motorcycles, and particularly barking dogs. It was only I who was disturbed by this incessant barking. So I put on my shoes and jacket and headed out into the night with a flashlight, a pen, and some paper.
Because of the acoustic vagaries of the Oakland hills and its many canyons, the barking of a dog can travel for miles. In this case it was, indeed, almost two miles I walked until I discovered the source. At street level was a driveway and mailbox. Down a flight of steps was a patio and a front door to a house. Surrounding the small front patio was a fence, an enclosed cage, and an unhappy, barking dog. The house itself was dark inside. The dog looked at me with sad eyes. And barked. Once. Fifteen seconds later, another bark.
The note I left in the mailbox went something like this:
After hearing your dog barking for over two hours, I became worried. Like you, I am a dog lover, and wondered whether this poor animal was in distress. And I, like your other neighbors, hope that in the future you will not leave your dog alone and caged up outside since I certainly wouldn’t want one of your neighbors (who is not a dog lover as you and I certainly are) to call the authorities. By the way, you have a terrific dog. I am sure he/she is very smart as well as handsome/beautiful.
After that the dog owners began to take better care of their pet. Or they sent it to the farm. Or to live with Polly Bergen.
Standing on a street in Bucerias, Mexico, waiting for a bus to take us to the nearby town of Puerto Vallarta, I observed what seemed like the equivalent of a Mexican dogcatcher attempting to round up a small pack of dogs. He was encouraging them to jump into the bed of his pickup truck, and most of the dogs did just that. Obviously, this guy was a Spanish dog-whisperer.
But there was one small pup who preferred to play, rather than join the others in the truck. And as the cliché goes, he was playing in traffic. I watched this scene unfold as the little dog ran directly in front of a car speeding by. Not only did the car hit the dog once, but it ran over it a second time with its rear wheels. A loud crunching sound could plainly be heard. A woman standing near me covered her mouth with her hands, burst into tears, and ran into a nearby store. I made eye contact with the so-called dogcatcher as he was about to get into his truck, and he got my message. He walked back, reached down, grabbed a hind leg, and tossed the puppy’s dead body into the bed of the truck with the rest of the barking pack. He then drove away, never looking back. We all watched in silent horror.
Many years later, I still recall the scene vividly, particularly the heart-breaking crunching sound.
At age 70, I began what became an epic coast-to-coast walk. In my book On God’s Radar—My Walk Across America, I describe my encounter (and brief love affair) with Emmy. It all started with the same question from two strangers as I walked along a rural Texas road.
“Hey, is that your dog?” the first man asked as I walked by. He was doing yard work in front of his house. I turned around and saw the dog.
“No, it isn’t.” The dog stopped and we looked at each other. I sighed and continued down the road.
“Hey, is this your dog?” came the question a few minutes later from yet another guy as he walked over, squatted down, and started playing with the same dog.
“No, but it seems to be following me.”
“You want a Pepsi?” he asked.
“Sure!” I introduced myself to Steve and petted the friendly dog until Steve returned with two cold Pepsis.
Steve took a closer look. “Well, she’s got a collar, but no tag. You sure you don’t want her? I already have eight dogs and I’m trying to get rid of some.” This sounded ominous.
I thought about what it would be like having a dog with me on my walk. There were several problems: I knew absolutely nothing about dogs; our apartment building in Oakland didn’t even allow dogs this big; and what about our cat, Graciela? But every time I looked at this beautiful animal I fell deeper into the dog-lover abyss.
“Maybe I should keep her,” I heard myself saying.
“I’m sure she’ll follow you,” Steve said as he went off to fetch a leash and some dog food.
I kneeled down and our eyes met. I asked her if she really wanted to walk with me across the country. (I still had over 1,500 miles to go.)
Taking a closer look at her collar I noticed that her name, Emmy, and a phone number were engraved on the buckle. I sighed and called the number. When a woman answered I told her that I was in Glazier and had her dog. She didn’t seem at all surprised. Emmy obviously led a rather independent life.
I handed Steve the phone and he quickly arranged to bring Emmy to a neighbor whom the owner knew.
I said goodbye to this beautiful little dog, and told her (or myself) that it just wasn’t meant to be. Steve hugged me, blessed me (in the name of Jesus), and I went on my way. Alone.
I have a friend, Ron, who’s known me for over 60 years. Even in high school when one of us would remark that we’d been through thick and thin together, the other would respond, “Mostly thick.”
When you’ve known someone that long, five or ten years can go by without contact, but when you speak again it’s as if the conversation is continuing from the previous day. Old, long friendships are like that.
Years ago, during a particularly stressful period, I lamented to Ron that in my next life I’d like to come back as a mellow person.
Without hesitating, he said, “You should come back as a dog.”
Ron has had dogs his entire life. There was always one or two dogs living with him. Never a cat. Not a hamster, or a canary. Only dogs. If Ron said that if I wanted to be mellow I should come back as a dog, I had no doubt that he knew what he was talking about. I only had one question for him.
“What kind of dog?”
He didn’t miss a beat. “A golden retriever.”
I still haven’t come up with a better plan.