Monday, November 16, 2015

Dog Days of My Life: Season Finale


My sister Martha and I were so busted up after Daddy made our not-quite-Weimaraner Rena disappear that we must have made Mama miserable, sad, and fed-up, and she apparently interceded on our behalf, because in a month or so (I suppose -- who knows how long, really?) we got a puppy, a very young puppy from Preacher Bennett, a WWII veteran who would also later become my history and geography teacher at Pinetta.

The puppy was a mostly gray, squirmy little thing with a black head and black ears. Since he had so much gray on him, we decided to name him Smoky. He was not attractive.The only thing that made him cute was that he was a puppy with that distinctively sweet puppy breath. His first life lesson for me, then, was that I was capable of loving something that had no appealing physical traits whatsoever.

We lived in a little duplex in Madison at the time, the rest of the house being occupied, first, by Preacher Doug Tanner and his family, then just by Tanner himself, as his family found greener pastures elsewhere. So when Smoky went through the whole puppy-crying-at-night thing, Preacher Doug, clearly able to count the yelps due to the thin wall separating us, suggested we try putting a ticking clock in Smoky's box at night, and it worked. 
Beasley thought this post was about her, so I put her picture in. 

Smoky being a puppy and all, it didn’t take long for Martha and me to fall in love with him. By then we had a little brother, Joe, who would’ve been about three, and he thought it would be cool, one day when Martha and I were at school, to douse Smoky with lighter fluid. Of course, it almost killed the little guy and we almost killed Joe. Smoky cried and whined and howled for who knows how long before he gradually got better, and most of his fur started growing normally again, and he became my best friend in the world for the next seven years.

(Joe, incidentally, more than made up for this early display of cruelty by devoting an entire career to helping sick and wounded animals, and by comforting both the animals and the people who loved them.)

Shortly after Smoky’s arrival, we moved back into the country, a few miles by dirt road from Pinetta, so the ugly little pup, now fully recovered from his almost literal baptism by fire, became a country dog.This meant, at least according to my dad's definition, that he was an outside dog, never to enter the house; that he would survive on table scraps, and eat cheap Jim Dandy (seriously) dog food only in the absence of scraps; and that he would not have his manhood removed (Daddy considered dogs animals, and you don't spend money on depriving animals of their fleshly delights or on any health-related issues).

This all sounds pretty stern, but for a while Smoky benefited from these strict edicts. For one thing, he would occasionally sniff the wind a little more frequently than usual, disappear for a few days, then return a much more relaxed dog, if you get my drift. But most importantly, he never wore a leash in his life, allowing him to follow me all through the woods where I was probably busy being Robin Hood or Alexander the Great or Huck Finn, and he would stroll with me through Granddaddy's 40-acre cow pastures, where he acquired a fondness for, if not an addiction to, chasing cows.

(And speaking of Joe, when he was about four, he cultivated this activity, driving both the cows and Granddaddy to distraction, making the latter eventually wish aloud that "Joe was in Halifax" -- which I came to believe was Baptist-speak for a more unsavory location -- but, as I said, he would later redeem himself. Pretty much.)

Like most dogs, Smoky had a reliable internal clock, so he was invariably waiting by the road when the school bus brought Martha and me home, and he would welcome us deliriously, partly by demonstrating how quickly he could run laps around our front yard. 

As soon as I had celebrated surviving another school day by wolfing down a PBJ, he would follow me to the yard where a backboard was clumsily nailed into the trunk of a massive oak, and there I would shoot baskets and become the star of numerous imaginary state-tournament finals, while Smoky indulged me by waiting patiently for whatever came next.

When I finally tired of all those buzzer-beating, game-winning shots, I would sit on the edge of my front porch, looking out for no reason into a large garden plot and a pine forest beyond, and Smoky would sit next to me without my asking him to and pant and blow his hot breath in my face and listen to me talk to him, and I'd settle into that sweet aloneness that only a dog's company can provide. 

So my best friend was just a basic, free-spirited, free-roaming, unfettered, unsightly outdoor mutt.

This next part will sound a little too familiar to many of you, but it's both factual and true just the same.
Mad or otherwise, I can't stand raccoons.

One day I was sitting on that very porch, and I heard Smoky putting up a big fuss out in the vegetable garden, so I ran out there to see what he was up to. He had confronted an ugly, limping, scrawny raccoon that wasn’t running away from him the way he should’ve, and Smoky was getting really pissed off at him, snarling and growling and snapping, while the raccoon would occasionally make a run at him, hissing and bearing his teeth.

I wisely ran inside the house and grabbed a baseball bat and ran back to Smoky’s defense. I actually landed a couple of blows on the foul critter before Smoky chased him across the road and up a pine tree. I returned to the house, got Daddy’s piece-of-crap, poorly sighted .22 rifle and tried to shoot him out of the tree.

Even with the rifle's crappy sight and my poor vision (I still didn't know I needed glasses), I was lucky enough to wound the raccoon and he dropped to the ground where I ended his life on this earth.

We could not be sure, we couldn't prove it, but it was believed that Smoky had been exposed to rabies and he would need to be put down. Not believing in veterinarians, Daddy took him into the woods and shot him and, while he was at it, shot another dog (a pretend Beagle) that had taken up residence with us.

He didn't do this gleefully or sadistically. (He actually liked the new dog for almost being a Beagle.) He saw himself as doing a tough job in the cheapest and quickest way possible with the tools at hand.

And that was by far the saddest day of my life up to that point, and I grieved for my friend long and hard, and I have never been able to go back to being a little boy with a dog he loved that much, and all the dogs I’ve had since then have suffered some, no doubt, because I was no longer a little boy and they weren’t Smoky.


  1. Whoa, very sad and very true. After my heart was broken by my beautiful cocker, Inky, no other dog ever got that close. Couldn't stand the heartbreak.

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  3. It really is rough. Thank you so much for reading.