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The Dogs In My Life

Where to begin? Like Nabokov, I’d like to command, “Speak Memory, speak. Good Memory!” But the very first dog in my life figures mainly as a pre-memory: she was a bulldog named Princess who, my mother says, terrified me. I was three at the time; my father was in Korea. The proud owners of Princess were in the habit, according to my mother, of pushing her around the block in a baby carriage. Princess loved these strolls so much that whenever she was out on her own, and happened to see a baby carriage, she’d try to jump in. This behavior did not endear Princess to the mothers and babies of the neighborhood.

But let’s return to my terror. My mother had a theory about it: seeing a dog, an ugly dog, where a baby ought to be just blew to flinders my tiny preconceptions of the way the world worked. The bulldog in the baby carriage triggered a pre-LSD experience, if you get what I’m saying, thrusting me into an Alice-in-Wonderland/Franz Kafka reality. I had as much of a psychotic reaction, in short, as a moppet can muster, causing me to run away from the baby carriage, hysterical, screaming and inconsolable. It must have been a Major Problem Area in the child-psych department, judging by the number of times my mother has told this goddam story, usually to complete strangers.

But I don’t remember any of this. I have only one memory of Princess, a memory which played a large role in the formation of my mature (so to speak) sexuality. But we’ll get to that. For now, let’s leave Princess and say only that she seemed to embody most of the qualities 50’s America looked for in a dog; that is, she was lovable yet mildly annoying, ugly in a cute sort of way, and famous in the neighborhood.

When my father returned from Korea, he brought with him a deck of cards featuring 52 different naked women, a tube which revealed a naked woman when held up to a light, and the only “war” story I ever heard him tell, about a Korean family, discovered by a squeamish squad of G.I.s, eating a dog. (These horrified rumors, by the way, that third-world folks eat dogs at the drop of a hat are among the more bizarre manifestations of racism. I’ve heard these tales about Vietnamese refugees—”It’s true! They trap ‘em right there in Golden Gate Park!” Even if these stories were true, gosh, maybe these people were hungry. Hey, if I was living in a bomb crater, thousands of miles from a Kentucky Fried, I’d eat Rover too.)

When pressed, my father admitted he hadn’t seen the dog-devouring himself. As a matter of fact, when I finally worked up the nerve in the mid-60s to call my father a condescending neoimperialist for telling this story, it was the first of many occasions that he kicked me out of the house. On such occasions, I’d usually spend the night on my girlfriend’s couch with Blackie, her sullen Labrador. Many times I’d wake up in the middle of the night to find Blackie’s face inches from mine motionlessly staring at me. He’d be making this noise, halfway between a growl and a whimper. I didn’t know if he wanted to lick my face or tear out my throat. Come to think of it, I had similar doubts about my girlfriend, who later threw me over for a Mormon with a drinking problem. But that’s another story for another time.

The cruel truth is I never had a dog as a child. My father had grown up on a farm, and the idea of keeping an animal as a pet struck him as foolish and decadent. “What do you want a dog for?” he’d say to me, “You aren’t blind and we don’t raise sheep.”

Faced with this attitude I could only content myself with the glorious dogs of fiction: Jim Kjelgaard’s Big Red, the seeing eye dog from Follow My Leader (the first work of pop culture in my experience to feature the exchange, “Go ahead, Doc, take the bandages off.” “They are off, Tommy.”) Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and D.A., Dogs of Flanders and Disney—true blue dogs who fetched ducks, pulled icy sleds over tundra, and lugged grenades and radios through the steaming jungles of the Pacific Theatre of Operations. All I wanted, when I grew up was a manly squint and a deep voice with which to command my wonder dog: “Lassie, fetch Timmy,” or “Bring me the lug wrench, Rinty,” or “Bullet, take the jeep and get the doc. I think my leg’s broke,” or “King, this case is closed!”

My childhood swanned with little Scotties whining by their master’s graves, brave little Benjies, tireless mutts trotting the long miles home, fierce beasts closing mighty jaws around the wrists of bad guys, forcing them to drop their revolvers: “Good dog, Ladd. Now bring it to me!”

Reader’s Digest! Boy’s Life! Saturday Evening Post! From these pages dogs bounded in great leaps, to yelp for help as perfect homes filled with smoke. They lugged babies through howling storms and still found time to fetch, roll over, wrestle, sleep beside you at the Old Fishin’ Hole, and even pose patiently for comic photographs in Life: wearing sunbonnets or big silly sunglasses, sporting false teeth, sitting in baby carriages—Even today, the Heartwarming Dog shows up on slow-news-day soundbites: sunny dogs, Frisbee-snatching dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, dogs that guide the deaf, lifeguard dogs. We even have Good Dog Carl and William Wegman’s Man Ray photographs for the ironic dog lover.

And there’s the flip side of the dog-as-tool: the security dog, the snarling Doberman, the sly German shepherd, the rabid St. Bernard. This is the tool gone out of control, the pit bull’s lock of a jaw at a bitter master’s command. In the deep woods somewhere, the ecstatic wailing of hounds must still be heard, as they corner some wild creature. Men with loaded weapons still amble to the kill, making mean jokes as they pass the bottle back and forth.

These are the dogs of our hopes and fears. Dogs in the real world don’t always survive their adventures. For example, there was Swinburne, a Great Dane, who roamed my hometown at will, leaping happily on small children, knocking them over, sending them home in tears. One day Swinburne’s body, riddled with shotgun pellets, was discovered at the city dump. Who knows what Swinburne’s crime against his assassin had been? Every small town has a subculture of gun lovers with a grudge against the pesky. His killer was never found, but his murder was a front page story in the local papers proving Swineburne’s legendary status in my hometown. Contrast this to New York City, where the dogs are leashed and pooper-scoopered, and the only bodies found in dumps are the remains of underbosses. And of course, I am familiar with the stories of Manhattan poodles driven insane by the constraints of condo-dwelling, who leap willfully to their deaths from the tiny patios of high-rises. I admit it. I believe these stories.

A dog is not an urban creature. A dog belongs on a porch, or sleeping in the middle of the dirt road of some sun-baked township. A dog belongs in the back of a pickup, or following two steps behind its hippie owner. A dog should carry a tennis ball or a stick in its mouth. If possible, it should have a red bandana wrapped around its neck.

For 27 days in the early ‘70s I lived on a communal farm. The five dogs that lived there had formed a pack, eating and/or frightening our neighbor’s chickens. This behavior did not endear the dogs to our farming neighbors. My fellow communards, naturally, believed that dogs should run wild, run free. I went along with this, until a car drove by one day and somebody inside pointed a rifle at us then drove on. I promptly got in my VW and drove on too. They weren’t my dogs, and I was damned if I was going to get shot for them—an attitude, by the way, which was a pretty close analog of my feelings towards the Vietnam War.

Just two weeks before, on a stoned hippie whim, we’d packed all the dogs and two cats into my VW, because somebody had heard it was Free Distemper Shots Night at some progressive Veterinary Clinic in the State Capitol. So I drove the two hours to Capital City with the dogs, the cats, a folksinger, his twelve-string, and a lesbian heroin addict who was into macrobiotics. (Ah, those were the days!) When we arrived, the clinic was closed. The folksinger and lesbian decided to stay, and I had to drive back to the farm alone—well, not alone, with a whining, spitting mass of fur and muscle. It reminded me of a similar trip I’d made back in 1968, in the same VW, with a retarded woman, a registered nurse and two Norwegian elkhounds dying from a rare kidney disease. But that’s a tale for which the world is not yet prepared.

The point is, up to a point, I was a sap for a dog. A dog was a tool for me no less than a hound for a hunter. The function of the dog, at that point in time, was to be an object of amusement while I was under the influence of illicit drugs. Dogs, you might say, occupied roughly the same place in my life that cable television does today. Of course I would never drive two hours to take my cable-ready television to a free clinic in the state capital. Especially not in a ‘65 VW. One does not have the same sentimental attachment.

But that point is moot. I don’t have a cable-ready television, any more than I had a dog as a child. Now I realize how pathetic that sounds. When you talk about dogs, frankly, the pathetic is hard to avoid. But if you’re starting to picture me as some little Ian-dog, wide-eyed, looking up at your feast hoping for a scrap, a pat on the head, attention in short, well, it might not be the hippest of mental images, but I’ll go with it. I’ll go all the way with it.

When I was in 7th grade, on the bathetic brink of puberty, my mother in her frugal wisdom bought me a pair of pants from a mail-order catalog. I was not popular, even though I possessed a certain inchoate intelligence, a gift for lip and a genuine flair for self-destructive behavior—you know, throwing dirt lumps at the shiny souped-up cars of sociopathic juveniles, starting small fires on the edge of town, that sort of thing. Well, to make a long story short, on my way from Homeroom to History one morning, my mail-order pants split at the seams. They just fell apart. They looked, in their spontaneous disintegration, like a pair of chaps from a cowboy movie, only there were no weather-beaten chinos beneath them just the pale flesh of my troubled legs. Mortified, I fled the school and ran home through the back alleys, weeping, cursing under my breath, hating my parents, God, the school system, President Kennedy’s physical fitness program, my hometown, my state, shoddy workmanship in boy’s clothing, the mail-order business in particular, capitalism in general, and—myself.

Yes, I, I, I bore the brunt of my rage and humiliation. My self-loathing was bottomless as I raced home, pants flapping like the tattered sails of a schooner racked by the winds of a ruthless sea. Would I had never been born! was my thoughts’ gist, as tears squirted from my eyes, to fall behind me with a noise like bursting water balloons. My reasoning was this: if I’d never been born, I wouldn’t get into fistfights every morning before Homeroom, my father’s blood pressure would go down, my sister would no longer suffer Dutch-rub agonies at my hands, my mother could use my bedroom for a sewing room, communists would discard their nuclear weapons, lions and lambs would lie down together, and the Pants From Hell would never have been ordered in the first place!

It was in the turbulent center of this matrix of misery that I rounded the corner of my block to see an ambulance parked in front of the Dorfmanns’, two doors up from us. As I ran past hoping to be such a blur of motion that, like the Flash, I would achieve invisibility, I noticed two men in white carrying Mr. Dorfmann down the front steps, his wife framed in the doorway above him, her mouth a quivering zero of concern. I learned later that he’d had a heart attack (he recovered), but such was the egotism of my self-pity that I believed my very presence in the vicinity, my alarming state of mind, had acted in some hideous psychokinetic manner hitherto unknown to science, and killed poor Mr. Dorfmann.

When I got home, all the doors were locked (cautious Mother was out shopping), so I went under the backyard lilac bush, hunkered down, and gave out great snorkeling sobs that put every bird within a five block radius to flight. They wheeled like vultures in the sky above me. My plan was to sit there sniffling, until all my ducts dried up. I’d dehydrate, turn to dust, and blow away. This was a good plan.

But then Skipper came along.

Skipper was our next-door neighbors’ dog, a black cocker spaniel who, at that point in time, was wearing a plaster cast that covered his lower torso, and held his right hind leg immobile at a slight angle away from his body. Skipper’s hip had been broken a month before, by (the neighborhood assumed) an angry tennis player from the public court down the street. Skipper loved to chase balls, whether people were playing fetch with him or not. He had the habit of bounding enthusiastically into the middle of matches and making spectacular leaps six or seven feet into the air to catch balls in mid-play. This behavior did not endear Skipper to lovers of tennis.

Immediately after his owners had brought Skipper home from the vet in his glowing white cast, Skipper disappeared for a week. We thought he’d met the same fate as Swineburne, but he showed up finally, cast filthy, coat matted, tail wagging, with a dirty gray tennis ball in his mouth, which he dropped at his master’s feet. Then he barked twice, in what I can only assume were triumph and joy.

So Skipper came along, limping energetically, tail lolling, a tennis ball held hopefully in his mouth. I wrapped my arms around his neck and wailed, “I’m hugging my neighbor’s dog, America! I have to hug someone else’s dog!” Then Skipper dropped the ball at my feet and barked twice.

So I threw the damn ball for Skipper until my mother came home, and another emotional crisis passed, thanks to Man’s Best Friend. Which brings me back to Princess.

One day, I was playing in front of our house. I couldn’t have been much older than four. It was autumn. The leaves were changing colors and falling. The noon whistle had just blown. Four teenage girls were sitting in front of our house, out of sight of the nearby high school, in a gray boxy parked car, casually inhaling cigarettes before they had to go back to class. Because I was the child of parents who only got in a car to go somewhere, I was baffled by their just sitting there. So l walked up to the car, intending to ask them what the deal was.

At that moment Princess came waddling along, with what was probably a grin but at the time seemed like a foaming snarl on her mashed-in face. I lost my head. I started running for the gray car and girls like a swimmer trying to make the island before the sharks got him. As I started to scream, so did the girls, and the back door opened, and they hauled me in.

Screams turned to giggles as the back door slammed. I found myself sitting between two girls with plucked eyebrows and grown-up eyes. As I peered around the girl on my right, I could see the top of Princess’ ugly head as she stood on her hind legs lo look in the window. She was whining with desire, probably thinking this was the biggest baby carriage she’d ever seen. The girl on my right stopped giggling, rolled down the window, and started to scratch Princess behind her ears. “She won’t hurtcha,” the girl said to me. “It’s just old Princess. See? Everybody knows old Princess.”

“I’m Ian,” I volunteered. The front seat girls ignored me and returned to their furious smoking and whispered gossip. “I live right up there,” I said proudly. I was trying to impress them, break the ice.

I looked at the girl on my left. She gave me a weary smile and frenched her Pall Mall, pulling up twin columns of smoke from her parted lips into her flared nostrils. I can’t begin to tell you how glamorized I was by this. Then she blew the smoke out the windows and we all fell into a silence broken only by the damp panting of Princess.

“Where you going?” I asked.

The girl behind the wheel didn’t even bother to turn around. “Crazy,” she said, bored. “Want to come along?”

I began to nod my head furiously. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, yes, yes!” I was bouncing up and down on the seat in what feminists would years later term a pre-orgasmic state.

But they didn’t take me anywhere. My mother came and retrieved me. I can still see them recede behind me, four delinquent girls and an ugly dog, as my mother carried me into the house and a constantly alarming future. This is my earliest memory

And so the puppies of innocence grow to be the wild dogs snarling in the back of the adult psyche. But I still remember the vicious beasts as they once were, sweet little guys abandoned on the front steps of my childhood id—the little fluffy one called Desire for Escape, the wiry nervous one called A Mother’s Love, the yellow-eyed wolfling called The Brief Attention of Restless Teenage Girls.

No, there is no lack of hellhounds to dog a poor boy’s heels, but it’s always the runt of the litter, the little tail-wagger so ugly it’s cute, wanting no more than love, that’s the scary nameless one. It’s always the harmless that prey on my mind. Maybe there’s just no place for puppy love in a dog-eat-dog world. I dunno. I gotta go.

“The Dogs in My Life” by Ian Shoales from Mondo Canine (copyright 1991 by Jon Winokur) reprinted by permission of the author.

Photographs by Cami Johnson,