by Donald D. Erwin
For centuries dogs have been companions and a source of pleasure for humans. They are well-known for being all-purpose pets, but dogs were also useful in hunting, for tidying up the garbage, and for serving as an extra blanket on cold nights. In some societies, when game was scarce – and sometimes even when it was not – they could be eaten. Most of us, however, wax sentimental about our dogs, and feed them rather than eat them. Our dogs, in return, feel equally sentimental about us, and greet us as if we were Odysseus when we return home. This ego enhancement outweighs even the joys of hunting, warmth and stew.
Most dogs think his or her human is the Great Spirit, the Primal Creator, and the Universal Force Behind the Sun and Tides. How can we resist such adoration? When the day at the office has been brutal Spot, or George or Queenie, rushes to greet us with explosive relief and tongue-slathering joy, often shedding a few drops of urine on the garage floor as if they were tears of pure gladness. If we are hours late, and our companion’s stomach is empty, there is no word of reproach, and his or her enthusiasm is not curtailed. It is rare that a human friend or companion will pile adoration on our heads in return for neglect or abuse. Queenie may even sit when we tell her to. Lamentably, few spouses rush to the door wriggling with delight these days, and almost none of them sit on command. Queenie is a pearl beyond price, and a poultice over the wounds of the day.
A lot is made of the pleasures of parenthood, and children do have their points, but how many of our offspring deeply, sincerely, believe that we alone cause the sun to shine and the fields to yield their bounty? How many even glance up from the television to note our triumphal return from the battlefield called the office? And of those who do, how many often say, “What did you bring me? On the other hand most of us only give our dogs time that we can spare, space that we can spare, and love that we can spare. In return dogs give us their all. It’s the best deal man has ever made.
We may be miserly, spiteful, flatulent, balding and fat, with disgusting table manners and a snore that rattles the house, but our faithful canine friends don’t just merely overlook these traits, he or she considers them evidence of a Divine Presence. Is it any wonder that many people are replacing their families altogether with dogs? After all, dogs are superior in so many ways. They think we can do no wrong, they are loyal, and their initial cost is less than a human birthing. The cost of raising them, as well as their long-term upkeep, is much less than a human acquisition, and there is very little school expense…and they certainly don’t clamor to “go away to college.”
As a confidant, a dog has no peer. They listen attentively, never interrupting with a difference of opinion, and they never leak our secrets or lurid past to the tabloids. As a companion, the dog gladly accepts our agenda and never wants to go shopping instead. As security, the dog defends the home against burglars, the mail-lady, joggers and noisy garbage trucks. As a helpmate, the dog never chatters distractingly, and even though he is likely to have his nose between us and the task at hand, he never tells us that we are doing it wrong. Few of life’s simple pleasures are as rewarding.
I was three when I had an encounter with a very irritated German Shepherd dog. He woke up from an afternoon nap with a snarl and took a chunk out of the left side of my face. Of course, the fact that I had whacked him across the backside with a stick may have had something to do with his bad temper.
The rush to a doctor’s office for stitches, as well as the follow-up visits, were scary experiences for me. The ice cream cones after each visit helped, but it was the cuddly six-week-old Rat Terrier puppy that suddenly appeared in our household that helped take the terror out of the ordeal. I suspect that my parents thought that I might have a fear of dogs after the attack, and that the puppy would help to alleviate that fear. It apparently worked, because I have never felt any unease around dogs.
We named the puppy “Duke.” I don’t know who came up with the name; it may have been the name of a previous pet in the family before my time. Duke was supposed to be my dog, but as I reflect on those early years I remember that Duke always seemed to be more at ease around my Dad. Oh, he slept with me throughout his thirteen-year life, and he would follow me around when we were both in our early years, but—as everyone knows—doggy years pass faster than human years, and while I was still frisky when I was six, Duke was a young adult of twenty-one in canine years. This is undoubtedly why he started to avoid me; he had outgrown my playfulness. Nevertheless, when bedtime came I was still his friend, and he would crawl into bed with me.
For several years my father had talked about moving back to Kansas. The war-time economy had treated my folks fairly well, so in 1948 they sold their dairy herd and little farm south of Madera, California, and bought an eighty-acre spread near Neodesha, Kansas. I was fifteen at the time, and after school was out we took off. Dad and Mom lead the way in their 1947 Jeep station wagon, and Duke and I followed in my 1930 Model A Ford at a stately thirty-five MPH (Dad’s choice, not mine). It took five days to make the trip at that speed over the old US Highway 66 to Tucumcari, New Mexico (now wistfully called “Historic Route 66”), and then on US 54 to Wichita, where we stayed for a few days with my sister Flossie and her husband Oran and their family.
Duke was eighty-four in dog years by this time, and had developed weak kidneys. There were no “fast food” places in those days for impromptu “potty stops.” Oh, we humans used the “filling station” rest rooms, but at Dad’s rate of speed about twice the time passed between fill-ups, and besides, Duke couldn’t use their facilities. So, when Duke showed signs of nervousness I would run up close to Dad’s back bumper and “Oooogah” my horn. My father would then look for a safe place to pull over so that Duke could “do his business.” We humans often found a bush as well. It was a long trip…in several ways.
The “new” farm in Kansas had a typical nineteenth-century mid-west style two-story white frame house. It had three bedrooms; the master on the ground floor and two more on the second floor. Being a typical rural farmhouse, it did not have central heating. It did have a chimney, with a provision for a wood stove on both floors, but we only heated the ground floor during the cold months. Consequently, when the temperature got below freezing in my bedroom Duke and I slept under several quilts.
It was Duke’s practice to crawl down to the foot of the bed—under the covers—and stick his nose out in order to breathe. This was fine with me…most of the time. But by this time Duke was a senior citizen, and after a good meal of table scraps it was not uncommon for him to be flatulent. He would settle down under the covers and toot. It was also not uncommon for me—after an especially blue cloud wafted back up to me—to boot Duke out of his comfortable spot and onto the floor. Then, since he was long past the point where he could jump back up on the bed, he would sit on the floor and whimper. Of course I would feel sorry for him and pick him up and—with a warning of dire circumstances if he didn’t control himself—deposit him back under the covers.
When it was time for Duke to “do his business” he liked to take a leisurely stroll to smell the flowers, as well as inspect his previous deposits. After one of his constitutionals, when he was thirteen, Duke came back limping and bloody. Dad opined that he had probably encountered a coyote or another dog. Duke never considered his size a drawback when it came to challenging another canine. He would yap as if he was a monster guard dog, but alas, he often got the worst end of things. This encounter was no different. Two days later Duke died.
There have been several dogs since Duke, the latest being a Queensland Heeler named Queen Anne, or “Annie” to family and friends. But Duke was the first, and as such has a special place in my memories. He patiently, if reluctantly, played an integral role in my early childhood fantasies, and as I grew older he followed along with anticipation as I hunted jack rabbits with my .22 rifle. He was a little guy with a big heart. I’ll always remember him as “My Pal Duke.”