Posts Tagged ‘Dogs’

I am the oldest of the Smith children, and when we were growing up, I was hard-wired — compelled from deep within — to pick on my younger brother Lee for sport. That’s the way of things with siblings in their youth.

Today, that same scenario is playing out with my granddaughter Maddie, 12, who gleefully needles her nine-year-old sister Sarah.

I’ve tried to convince Maddie that she is simply instructing Sarah in the art of taunting — that Sarah will become highly skilled at cunning and trickery and ultimately will have her revenge.

But, just as Cassandra was cursed so that no one would believe her prophesies, I am ignored. Maddie’s continues to tease and torment her sister at every opportunity.

But then, I didn’t listen when I was Maddie’s age, either. Call it irony. Call it destiny. Karma. What goes around, comes around.

And, based on how things are progressing, Retribution Day is not far off.


Last Tuesday, I was on kid-sitting duty for the afternoon. When I arrived, a steady rain was falling. Maddie and Sarah would be housebound, cooped up with me and the dogs, left to pass the time with music, television, and laptops.

Before long, tired of those options, they decided to get out some blankets and make tents in the living room. This is a regular rainy-day thing.


The girls soon were inside their tents, Maddie with her laptop, Sarah with Leroy, their new Black and Tan Coonhound puppy.

Sarah and Leroy

The TV was off. The living room was silent. I settled back to check the news on my tablet.

Moments later, Maddie’s arm reached out from under the blanket and felt around for her water bottle. She found it and brought it inside the tent.

Moments after that, the arm reappeared to return the water bottle from whence it came. As Maddie probed for the spot, the hard plastic bottle dinged against the hardwood floor, making a loud bonk that interrupted the silence.

“What was that?” said Sarah from inside her tent.

“What was what?” Maddie replied.

“That loud noise. That knocking sound.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” said Maddie, sensing an opportunity to exploit the situation.

“There was a loud noise! I heard it!”

“Sarah, you’re hallucinating. Leave me alone. I’m trying to rest.”

The room grew silent.

After a brief pause, Maddie reached out from under her tent, held the water bottle a few inches above the floor, and rapped it against the floor. Another bonk ensued.

“There it is again!” Sarah exclaimed from beneath her blanket. “What is it?”

“What is what?” said Maddie.

“That knocking sound! I heard it again!”

“I didn’t hear anything! Hey, Rocky! Did you hear anything?”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth. “Me? No, I didn’t hear anything.”

“Well, I heard it, and I know I heard it!” said Sarah. “Y’all are just playin’ with me!”

“You’re demented, Sarah,” said Maddie.

The room got quiet again. For the next few minutes, there were periodic bonks, followed by the same conversation of inquiry and denial.

Finally, after what turned out to be the last bonk, Maddie slipped up.

“Sarah, something is wrong with you! That sound you hear, it’s just in your head!”

Suddenly, Sarah popped up from beneath her blanket.

“‘That sound you hear’? ‘That sound you hear’?” she bellowed, pointing a finger at Maddie’s tent. “So, you admit it! I’m hearing a sound!”

Quietly, Maddie came out from under the blanket, her hands covering her face. She was busted, and she knew it.

Simultaneously, the three of us began laughing.

The sudden noise frightened Leroy, who wiggled out from under the blanket and scampered off to seek the protection of the other dogs.

Leroy 7-16


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My beloved Paco, my best friend, the kindest and gentlest soul I’ve ever known, died Friday. I am reeling with grief. I have cried a hundred times.

Paco was 15, more or less. I don’t know for sure. He was a rescue dog, a stray found wandering along a county road, wearing a purple nylon collar with no identification.

He was a charmer, and I adopted him, and he had a long, eventful life. He was happy, healthy, comfortable, and content. Then, a few mornings ago, he was too weak to stand. The vet never determined why.

Death came to my precious boy in a calm, gentle way. For two days, he was kept on an IV. He was lucid, and he responded to me and others with his usual affection, although it was muted.

But he couldn’t get up. Several times a day, the staff carried him outside on a blanket. He ate only once.

Although he didn’t bounce back, he was never in pain or distress. When the time came to let him go, he passed away peacefully. I kissed his cheek and stroked his fur, and we were looking into each other’s eyes when the moment came.

For 13 years, Paco and I were a team. It was just the two of us, and I did my best to treat him well. I tried to make sure he lacked for nothing.

I probably raised my voice a few times, but I never struck him or punished him. I treated him with kindness and respect, because he deserved it; he never misbehaved or caused the slightest trouble. He was just a devoted friend. I was soothed and uplifted by his calm demeanor and quiet presence.

During the last year of his life, Paco slowed down considerably. For a long time, we were trail buddies, and we logged many miles hiking in the North Georgia mountains. But age and arthritis finally made the hills and the distances more than he could handle.

So, instead of driving north for a day of hiking, we settled for Sunday morning walks in town, around the elementary school or the high school. He could go off-leash there, wander at his own pace, and investigate all the wonderful smells.

It may be selfish of me to say, but suddenly, my life is abruptly changed. Paco isn’t there to greet me when I come home. The food and water bowls have been put away. The treat canisters are gone from the kitchen counter.

The familiar rituals — taking him outside for potty breaks, saving a few choice morsels for him on my dinner plate, making sure the toilet seat is up and the bowl is full, helping him onto the bed at night — all have ended.

Paco was a border collie, but an especially calm and quiet one. He rarely barked or vocalized. Perhaps to compensate, I talked to him quite a bit.

I had a long list of affectionate names for him. I called him “Sweetness.” That was the nickname of Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears running back of the 1970s.

I called him “my handsome friend” and “my bat-eared buddy” and “old flop-eared mutt” as often as “Paco.”

“You silly pooch,” I would say, or “What a knucklehead,” or “Look at that beautiful tail.” He answered with a head tilt.

Yes, I know — everyone’s dog is the best dog in the world. But Paco truly was a special creature, a special soul. Everyone who knew him acknowledged that.

It’s hard to say what made him so. Probably many factors. He was deeply intelligent. He had a quiet dignity, a noble character — almost an air of Zen, if “just a dog” could display such a thing. Whatever it was, it was impressive. It was admirable.

A long time ago, I ran across the adage that “most dogs are better people than most people.” Paco certainly was that. He was a better man than I am.

He was a calm, serene, delightful spirit. I loved, admired, and respected him more than I can express.

People have said Paco was lucky I found him. I suppose that’s true. But I was the lucky one. That silly pooch, he was a treasure. He enriched my life.

If there is a next realm, if there is a God, then God has the duty to take care of my wonderful Paco now.

There. I’ve said what I wanted to say about my dear, delightful friend. If you’ll excuse me, it’s Sunday morning, and I feel like walking for a while at the elementary school.













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This Just In

LACY TOWNSHIP, NEW JERSEY — While its owners were away, a dog apparently turned on a stovetop burner and started a fire.

Although investigators can’t explain how, they said the dog turned on a burner, which set fire to a laptop computer the homeowners had left on top of the stove.

Neighbors called the fire department when they saw black smoke billowing from the residence. Except for destroying the laptop, the blaze caused no damage and was quickly extinguished.

The dog was unharmed.

Dog & stove

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS — A Connecticut man, who was charged with stealing a taxi cab and then released on bail, left a Boston police station and crawled into a patrol car parked at the curb to take a nap.

According to police, the 33-year-man was found asleep in the front seat of an empty police car outside the station where he had been booked earlier.

When awakened, the man told officers he just needed a place to rest. He faces an additional charge of breaking and entering.


JUNEAU, ALASKA — Police in Juneau took a call last month to investigate a suspicious device abandoned on the side of a road.

According to a news report, the responding officer wasn’t sure what to make of the object, so the dispatcher sent a second officer who was trained in defusing bombs.

The second officer identified the device as a plastic Star Wars light saber, the preferred weapons of Jedi knights.

The second officer said the confusion probably occurred because the light saber, which expands to reveal a long plastic “blade,” was in the closed position.

Wise in the ways of Star Wars toys is he.

Light saber

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I live in the little town of Jefferson, north of Atlanta, well up onto the Piedmont Plateau. Up here, we are spared the worst of the heat, humidity, gnats, and mosquitoes you find down on the coastal plain. The North Georgia seasons are downright moderate.

But this is the South, and I live in the foothills, not the mountains, and summer is still summer. Which is why, when I find myself retreating indoors by noon and turning on the air conditioning, it’s time for a restorative road trip.

One of those times was the last week in June. Daytime temps were creeping into the 90s, so I packed a bag, loaded up the dog, and set out to spend a few days at some higher, cooler elevation.

My plan was to drive into North Carolina, head up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and take side trips as the spirit moved me. It would be a qué será, será sort of thing.

For the record, I was traveling in my trusty RV, “Old Blue” — so named because the interior is upholstered in velour of a jarring cerulean blue. It was a 90s thing.

So, this would be a camping trip. But camping, I assure you, of a civilized nature.

The kind of camping where you stay at an RV park, plug into AC power, fish a cold beer out of the refrigerator, and crank up the hot water heater for your shower.

The kind of camping where, after sitting outside and watching a beautiful sunset in the invigorating mountain air, you retire to the RV to listen to some tunes, or maybe watch television, while the dog snoozes at your side.

To me, the appeal of RV camping is the adventure of it all. When you stop for the night, you’re in new surroundings, meeting new people, having new experiences. It’s invigorating.

On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that the experience will be positive. You never know how the conditions, the surroundings, or the people will turn out. It’s always a roll of the dice.


It was late afternoon of my first day on the road. Paco and I had traveled 150 miles up the Blue Ridge Parkway, and it was time to find a campground for the night. I exited the Parkway in the small mountain town of Spruce Pine.

Signs advertising RV campgrounds were everywhere, so I picked one at random. It seemed on arrival to be a good choice. The sites were nicely shaded, and the mountain views were impressive.

I stopped in front of the office, and a smiling man emerged. “Howdy, friend!” he said. “Welcome to [name redacted] RV Park! I like your rig!”

I thanked him, and we chatted agreeably for a minute before getting down to business. Yes, he had vacancies with hookups.

“I’ll put you down there next to my friends Joan and Bob,” he said, pointing down the row of sites. “They’re regulars, here all summer. Real nice, friendly folks.”

I nodded, mumbled more pleasantries, and paid him for one night. The man set off toward the campsite, and I followed in the RV.

As I backed into the site, my new neighbors Joan and Bob waved at me from a carpeted screen house behind their RV. I turned off the engine and got out.

“Hello, neighbor! Welcome!” said Joan in a loud and gratingly high-pitched voice. “I’m Joan, and this is my husband Bob!”

Joan was a seriously obese woman of about 60 with a jolly face and a bright yellow pixie haircut. She sat slumped in a large deck chair like a miniature version of Jabba the Hutt.

Instead of Carrie Fisher in chains, she held a tiny brown mongrel-looking dog that was yowling and straining to get at me. In a friendly way.

“This precious little fella is our baby, Dusty!” said Joan. “He is six months old and a rescue pup. We love him SO much!”

I introduced myself and expressed admiration for young Dusty.

Bob, a tall, lean man with a shaved head, thick moustache, and a face pocked with acne scars, chimed in. “We fell in love with Dusty because of his teeth — those silly snaggle teeth!”

Indeed, Dusty had a severe bulldog-like overbite. The splayed teeth looked terribly uncomfortable. Not that Dusty would know that.

“Well, come on in and have a seat!” Joan screeched. “We’ve got plenty of room and lots to talk about!”

I protested that they would have to excuse me for a minute, because I had a dog, too, and I needed to get him out of the RV.

Joan and Bob were thrilled to hear that I had a dog. They peppered me with excited questions, which I tried to answer as I inched backward toward my van.

Finally, I reached the sanctity of the far side of the RV. I got Paco out, hooked him up on his rope, and set out his food and water.

When my new neighbors saw Paco, they went bonkers. Joan and Bob, as apparently was their nature, were delirious with joy. Little Dusty began wailing in terror, probably convinced that 45-pound Paco was coming to kill him.

Paco ignored them all and calmly ate his supper.

Dusty’s wailing continued unabated, and the campground manager soon appeared. He joined Joan and Bob in trying to get Dusty to calm down.

“Dusty! Dusty! Take it easy, buddy!” said the manager. “The nice dog won’t hurt you! See? He’s a friendly dog!” He patted Paco on the head.

Dusty whimpered from the safety of Joan’s armpit. Ten feet away, outside the screen room, Paco stood next to me, benignly wagging his tail.

Slowly, Dusty got a grip, and the noise level subsided.

“Dusty is my god-dog, you know,” said the manager. “If anything happens to Joan and Bob, Dusty will come live with me!”

“Not that anything’s gonna happen!” Joan bellowed. “I outlived two husbands before I met Bob! I’m here for the long haul!”

“Ever since we got married,” she said with glee, “Bob has been a real light sleeper, if you know what I mean!”

Bob chuckled like a good husband, scooped up Dusty, and cooed soothingly in the dogs’ ear.

The manager drifted away to other duties, and Bob ushered me to a seat inside the screen room. Paco and Dusty ended up sprawled next to each other on the carpet.

For the next half hour, we sat and chatted in a neighborly fashion. Joan did most of the talking.

I learned that they are from Ocala, Florida, and they stay at [name redacted] RV Park every year from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

I also learned that Joan’s second husband left her a boatload of money, and Bob worked at a hardware store before he met Joan.

I probably should explain that I am not, by nature, a gregarious person. I have a limited tolerance for socializing. I get restless. It wasn’t easy to listen politely as Joan and Bob waxed eloquent about subjects of little interest to me.

Some people would have excused themselves on a pretext and retreated to the privacy of their RV. But I’m a polite, conflict-averse guy, so I sat there, enduring it.

Ultimately, it was Bob who broke up the confab.

“Joanie, honey, it’s almost six,” he said. “Why don’t we invite Rocky to go to supper with us?”

“Thanks,” I said quickly, “but I’m not going out tonight. I have some leftovers in the fridge. If you folks need to get going, please — don’t let me hold you up.” I stood up expectantly.

“Aw, come with us!” said Joan. “This town has lots of good restaurants! It’ll be fun!”

Somehow, I managed to beg off, and we said our goodbyes. With great effort, Joan struggled out of her chair. While Bob put Dusty in the camper and locked up, Joan plodded in laborious slow motion toward their car, teetering on a cane.

After they were gone, I put Paco in the RV and drove into town to find a quiet supper.

I know, I’m a terrible person.

Ten minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot of a small restaurant that advertised the best home cookin’ in North Carolina. When I walked through the front door — oh, the irony — a familiar voice greeted me.

“So, you changed your mind!” said Joan in her familiar shriek. “How did you find us?”

“I, uh, spotted your car as I was driving by.”

The meal turned out to be pretty good. To my surprise, Joan ate like a bird, Bob like a ravenous beast. Joan talked continuously and effortlessly.

By the time we got back to the RV park, they were ready for bed. Joan said they were early-risers.

The next morning, I was up early, too. I ate breakfast, fed Paco, got showered and dressed, packed up, and was on the road by 6 AM.

Lest they think me rude, I left a goodbye note on their windshield.

Paco and Old Blue at [name redacted] RV Park. That's Joan and Bob's campsite on the far side of my van.

Paco and Old Blue at [name redacted] RV Park. That’s Joan and Bob’s campsite on the far side of my van.

The pastoral mountain view from the RV park. Joan and Bob said they spend their evenings watching the corn grow.

The pastoral mountain view from the RV park. Joan and Bob said they spend their evenings watching the corn grow.



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In March 2007, I hiked the dusty eight-mile trail to the village of Supai, Arizona, located in western Grand Canyon, truly in the middle of nowhere.

Supai is the home of the Havasupai tribe. The village is located in Havasu Canyon, which leads down to the Colorado River and is famous for the spectacular waterfalls along Havasu Creek.

It’s also famous for being isolated and  remote. No roads lead to Supai. You get there by foot, mule, or helicopter. You visit by reservation only.

The trailhead and the helipad are at Hualapai Hilltop, a desolate parking area 60 miles from the nearest town. No services are at the trailhead — only a few trailers and a couple of tribal officials who check permits.

For a fee of $85, you can helicopter down to Supai. For another $85, you can helicopter back out. Otherwise, you hit the trail, which winds down to the village on the floor of the canyon. Park Service campgrounds are located two miles beyond Supai along Havasu Creek.

For my trip in 2007, in order to avoid the weight of camping gear, I made reservations at the tribal motel in the village. The motel is a small, bare-bones place, but clean and adequate.

The trip was a blast. The weather was ideal, the scenery astounding. I got plenty of good photos — although I discovered that the season was wrong for photography; in the spring, when you face the waterfalls, you’re facing the sun.

In 2009, I twice wrote about that trip on this blog.

One story was about the tribe’s long struggle to maintain its homeland and identity.

The other focused on something I didn’t expect to find down there: a healthy population of mongrel dogs living at large in the village.

But neither story got around to documenting one of the most indelible memories of that trip: the harrowing finale, when a sobering realization brought everything to a proverbial screeching halt.

Let me begin at the beginning.

After flying into Las Vegas, I picked up my rental car at the Budget office, drove east into Arizona, and stopped for the night in Kingman. The next morning, I got up early and drove the 100-odd miles to Hualapai Hilltop.

Bird's-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

Bird’s-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

On arrival, I parked, got out my gear, locked the car, obtained my entry permit from the tribal guy, and set off down the trail.

For the next two days, I explored the village and the waterfalls at my leisure. Meals were at the Supai Cafe, the only place in town that serves hot food.

How was the food? Expensive and awful. The cheeseburgers were served on sandwich bread. The lettuce was wilted, the tomatoes overripe. Tater tots came with everything. The breakfast burritos were frozen.

Some of the tourists were unhappy and vocal about it. My attitude: you shouldn’t go to a place like Supai expecting an Outback Steakhouse.

On the third morning, in a heartbeat, my trip unraveled.

I awoke, showered, and dressed. My plan was to grab a bad breakfast and hike down to the waterfalls for more photos.

Then, as I puttered around the motel room, a strange sensation came over me. A voice inside my head spoke to me.

It asked if I had seen the keys to my rental car lately.

Hmmm… Let me think… After I locked the car, I undoubtedly put the keys in my waist pack. Actually, I haven’t seen the keys lately, but what of it?

Well, you carry all your personal stuff in the waist pack — wallet, loose change, penknife. You empty the contents onto the dresser every night. Where are the keys?

Where, indeed. After calmly checking the waist pack, I calmly searched the motel room. Then I calmly went through all my clothes and possessions thoroughly. Twice. The keys were not there.

My blood ran cold as I realized the implications of that turn of events.

The keys could be anywhere. I could have dropped them during the initial hike. Or at the waterfalls. Or somewhere in the village. At that very moment, one of the town mutts could be gnawing on the transponder.

Fighting back the panic, I methodically covered all the appropriate bases. I asked the motel manager if anyone had turned in a set of car keys. I did the same at the restaurant, the general store, the post office, and the tribal office. No luck.

Back at the motel, I made the decision to call the car rental office in Las Vegas. Surely, they would know what to do about lost car keys.

Supai had no cell phone service then, and probably still doesn’t. But several places had land-line phones. They’re for official use, of course, but the motel manager graciously allowed me to call the Budget office in Las Vegas.

The Budget lady seemed a bit surprised about my situation, but was quite sympathetic. She gave me the phone number of a locksmith in Kingman and said to call him. He could meet me at Hualapai Hilltop and set me up with a duplicate key.

I asked what sort of spectacular bill his service call might incur. She couldn’t say.

I sat there for a few minutes, weighing my options and bemoaning my situation. Just as I was concluding that calling the locksmith was my only solution, the motel manager spoke up.

“Did anyone call Hualapai Hilltop?” she asked. “Somebody could have turned in the keys up there.”

I was incredulous. Call Hualapai Hilltop? Hualapai Hilltop has phone service?

Well, sort of. As the manager explained, the people on duty at Hualapai Hilltop carry two-way radios.

The manager called the tribal office. Minutes later, the tribal office called back. Yes, my keys had been turned in at Hualapai Hilltop.

I was so delirious with joy, I nearly swooned.

To celebrate, and to get my hands on those keys as soon as possible, I promptly checked out of the motel, gave the manager a lavish tip, and treated myself to an $85 helicopter ride out of Supai.

When I climbed out of the helicopter at the trailhead, a Havasupai man was standing nearby, smiling and dangling my keys.

Two hikers, a man and a woman, had turned in the keys earlier that morning. They found them on the ground next to my locked car. Apparently, when I dropped the keys into the zipper pocket of my waist pack, I missed.

“You were lucky those two were honest,” the man told me. “They could have taken your car. Some folks would do that.”

So, my trip ended happily, not in utter disaster. I drove back to civilization and spent the next week at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, slowly calming down from the experience.

How sweet it is to dodge a bullet thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.


The village of Supai.

The village of Supai.


The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.

The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.


Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.

Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.


Havasupai Lodge.

Havasupai Lodge.




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Without a Dog

Being a writer, and a dog fancier clean to the bone, I appreciate a good story about canine behavior and the influence dogs can have on people.

That’s why I was so taken by a recent essay in Bark Magazine by Katherine Goldberg, a veterinarian in Ithaca, New York. Goldberg wrote about Sydney, a female pooch she rescued in 2006 from a garbage dump in Bucerias, Mexico.

Although now thoroughly acclimated to being a house pet, Sydney is quite self-sufficient, as you can imagine a former street dog would be. So, when Sydney ran off one day in September — disappeared, lit out — Goldberg set out anxiously to find her — but wasn’t too concerned about the dog’s well being.

However, a few days later, with Sydney still missing, Goldberg’s anxiety began to escalate. She undertook an all-out search. She posted missing-dog flyers. She set traps baited with food.

The experience had a greater impact on Goldberg than she expected. She later wrote this about her feelings during the time Sydney was on the run:


Days four and five were scenes of increasing despair and decreasing function. Overwhelmed by calculations of how many years it had actually been since I’d lived without a dog, and preparing myself for that new reality, I was raw and just plain lonely.

We take for granted the presence of a dog — even a quiet one who doesn’t do much and isn’t very soft.

Until there is no dog, it is hard to imagine how much space one actually occupies just by curling up on a small circular cushion that L.L. Bean calls a bed.

Without a dog, there’s nobody to check in with, out of the corner of your eye, just to feel a sense of “you and me, we are both here now” — a sense that, as it turns out, is pretty damn important.

Without a dog, days have less structure — no going home to let the dog out, or feed, or tend to — and while structure doesn’t always equal meaning, I think that with a dog, it does.

Without a dog, being one person in one space is surprisingly lonely. With a dog, there is connection.


Yes, the story had a happy ending. Sydney reappeared at the door of a nearby residence — dirty, but healthy and well-fed, thank you very much. This is how Goldberg described her great relief:


One glass of red wine later, breaking my firm “no dogs in the bed” rule, I buried my face in Sydney’s dirty coat, speckled with vegetation and ticks, and breathed her in. It was the first time in five days that I was alone in my house without being lonely.

As I write this, Sydney is sleeping on her bed after a thorough brushing, tick-picking, and bath. I wish I knew what she was thinking, but I suppose that is one of the mysteries of dogs.

I breathe more deeply knowing that the air in my home is full of dog-ness once again, but I have no idea how we can love them so much.

All I know is that I will probably love her more now that she is outfitted with a GPS device on her collar.

My dog Paco, grabbing a few mid-morning z's. The print is "Master Bedroom" by Andrew Wyeth.

My dog Paco, grabbing a few mid-morning z’s. The print is “Master Bedroom” by Andrew Wyeth.

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The short story below cries out for an introduction laced with puns about dogs. I will resist that temptation and allow the tail itself to do the talking.


Just Call Me Irish

By Richard Wilson
Published in Future Science Fiction, June 1958

The housing development near the university was newly finished. Salesman John F. (“Call Me Happy”) Horman had waited a week for the tenants to become settled before making the rounds with his sample electric rat trap and his order book.

He began at the southwest corner of the project and knocked at the first door. As it opened Happy went into his spiel. Toward the end of his second sentence, he skidded to a stop in the middle of a syllable when he realized he was talking to a dog. A female dog.

Happy was confused. “Is your master in?” he asked.

“Just a minute,” said the dog.

The door closed and Happy stared hard at it. Then it opened again. A larger dog stood there. “What can I do for you?” asked the larger dog.

“This is ridiculous,” said Happy. “When I asked that other dog if her master was in, I meant the master of the house, not her master.” He consulted the list of names of the families who lived in the project. “I was looking for a Mr. Setler.”

“Setter’s the name,” said the dog. “They misspelled it. I’m the master of the house. Is there something I can do for you?”

“I don’t know.” Happy Horman took off his glasses, wiped them, replaced them on his nose, replaced his handkerchief and looked at the large reddish animal in the doorway. “This is very strange. Are you a talking dog?”

“Obviously.” The dog swatted a fly with his tail. “Are you a talking man?”

“Why — yes.”

“Then why don’t you say something? Are you with the housing project? Because if you are, I wish you’d do something about the sink. It leaks. And my son Whiffet is getting tired of lapping up after it. Besides, I think it’s undignified.”

“Mr. — ah — Setter,” said Happy, mustering his faculties, “I represent the Ohm Electric Rat Trap Company. Our slogan is ‘No ‘ome should be without one.’”

He laughed emptily. “I think you’d be interested in a little demonstration I’d like to make for you. That is, I think you’d… ”

The door opened wider, and the dog who had first spoken to Happy appeared. “Irish, dear,” she said, “will you please come in or go out? The kennel’s getting cold.”

“House, Maureen, not kennel.”

“House, then. But why not ask the gentleman in?”

“Yes, won’t you come in, sir?” said Irish. “If you don’t mind the place being somewhat littered.”

Happy went in and sat on the edge of a normal wooden chair. He looked around with interest but so far as he could see the furnishings were those of an average dwelling. It did not look at all like a doghouse, though it unquestionably was a dog’s house.

Irish curled himself comfortably on a couch while Maureen excused herself, saying it was time the younger whelps were fed. “I’ll be glad when they’re weaned,” she said. Happy Horman blushed.

“Mr. Setter,” Happy said, “please forgive me if I seem curious, but just how — that is, why, uh — how come you’re living here?”

“Why not?” Irish said. “I’m eligible.”

“But I thought these houses were set aside for veterans?”

“I’m a veteran,” the dog said. “Want to see my honorable discharge from the K-9 Corps?”

“Oh. But you have to be a student, and you have to be married, I thought.”

“I am married, sir,” Irish said in a hard voice. “You don’t think I’m just living with the bitch, do you?”

Happy coughed in embarrassment. “Please, Mr. Setter, I meant to imply no such thing. But how can you be a student? At the university, that is? I realize that we’re all students of human nature, heh heh, you especially, of course, being a — a canine.”

“Dog is good enough. No need to get hifalutin. Would you like to hear the whole story?”

“Why, yes, I would.”

“It began about 1949,” Irish said, settling himself more comfortably. “My master (before I became my own) was Professor Neil Wendt, the big nuclear physics man on campus. Or should I call him the nuclear physics homo sapiens?” he asked archly. Happy laughed hollowly.

“I don’t fully understand, even now, what exactly Wendt was doing but I was his constant companion, his dumb animal friend. Then one day, as I reconstruct it, I was affected by radiation and when Wendt called me I said ‘Coming.’ Just like that. I don’t know who was more surprised, Wendt or me.

“After some preliminary confusion we sat down and talked the thing out. We found that we could be of considerable help to each other. I suggested a few improvements in his equipment, having had a dog’s eye view of it from underneath; though actually it made little difference because in a few weeks the Atomic Energy Commission took the whole thing over.

“In the meantime he went with me to the dean and with a little coaching I was able to pass the examinations and was awarded a bachelor’s degree. You a college man, sir?”

“Er, no,” Happy said.

“Um. Well, later, when I was working toward my master’s I realized there were more important things than books. I refer to the Korean War. So, as any red-blooded American dog would do, I enlisted.

“The K-9 Corps is a fine organization, in its limited way, and I was very quickly promoted to sergeant. But the caste system! Absolutely unfair. I had heard about openings in Officer Candidate School and inquired about them. My first sergeant laughed at me but by dogged persistence I got to see the regimental commander.

“He was sympathetic but had to refuse my application. Said there was nothing in the ARs about it. What a welter of dogma those army regulations are! So I was forced to finish out my army career as an enlisted dog. True, I finally made master sergeant — though they claimed it was stretching a point for a dog to become a master — but my hackles still rise when I think of the indignities I suffered under the myth of racial superiority. What a blow to one’s pride to be forced to write ‘animal’ opposite the word race, when almost everyone else was able to write ‘human.’ ” Irish glared so at Happy that the salesman winced.

“But that’s all over now, Mr. Setter,” Happy said. “And now you’re back at school. What field are you in?”

“Anthropology, of course,” Irish said. “But we’ve talked enough about me. What was it you had to show me, sir?”

“I really don’t think you’d be interested,” Happy said. “It’s something you certainly would have no use for. You see, it’s a rat catcher, and surely you of all ani — er, of all people, wouldn’t –”

“Well, I don’t know. I don’t see why not. I suppose you might argue that I’m perfectly capable of catching rats myself. It’s true that I’m still a young dog, but I don’t have the time for sport that I used to. Suppose I take a look at your model.”

Relieved to be in action again, the salesman rose and plugged in the cord of his electric rat trap. With a rubber rat he demonstrated its possibilities.

“Well, I’ll be doggoned,” Irish said. “Maureen, come in and look at this gadget.”

The female dog (as Happy preferred to think of her) came in. She also marveled at its efficiency.

“Let’s get one, Irish,” she said. “It’ll save us an awful lot of work.”

“I think I will,” Irish said. “If you’ll make out an order for us, sir? That’s fine. Just put the pen in my teeth and I’ll sign it. There.”

Happy handed over the receipt, discreetly wiped the doggy saliva from his pen and prepared to go.

“Drop in any time,” Irish said. “You might like to come in some evening and tear a bone with us.”

Happy forced a chuckle. “You’re quite a wag, Mr. Setter,” he said daringly, and was relieved when his customer broke into a barking laugh and closed the door after him.

Happy Horman took several deep breaths of air, then turned back to look at the house. No one was visible behind its windows. He looked at his order book. There was the bold signature: I. Setter.

He shook his head, shrugged and went to the next house. He knocked. A fat young man opened the door.

“I beg your pardon,” Happy said, “but is your dog in?”

Irish setters

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My dad was a career military officer, and his lot in life was packing up and moving on. Which meant it was the family’s lot, too.

In 1960, after a tour of duty in Germany, Dad was transferred to Atlanta. We were back in the States and within a day’s drive of our relatives.

A few years earlier, when we shipped out to Europe, we had left behind the family dog, Pudgy, a delightful little black and white mutt who mostly belonged to me. We left Pudgy in the care of my grandparents, Leila and Frank Byrd.

Leila and Frank lived in Suwanee, just north of Atlanta. Silly me, I assumed I would get my dog back after the tour in Germany was over. It didn’t happen. Pudgy had become Frank’s dog, and that was that.

But Dad had a friend, who had a friend, and one day, Dad brought home a new family dog: a majestic adult male Alaskan Malamute named Timber Trail Kimo.

Kimo had it all — the papers, the lineage, the demeanor, the grand appearance. He was a magnificent animal. Dad even mused, with dollar signs in his eyes, about hiring Kimo out for stud.

Although regal in bearing, Kimo was 110 pounds of pushover. He was amiable, quiet, never any trouble. When my baby sister Betty climbed on his back and yanked at his fur, Kimo endured it without complaint.

When Kimo joined the family, we lived in a rented house in an Atlanta suburb. Kimo seemed content with a small fenced back yard and life as a house dog. Everyone was surprised that he adapted so well.

That year, while I was off at college, Mom and Dad purchased some acreage in Suwanee not far from Leila and Frank. A new house soon went up, and the Smiths began a new life in exotic Suwanee, Georgia.

Kimo blossomed in the new environment. He loved the freedom of a 3-acre pasture for a front yard. He joyfully chased small critters through the woods. For Kimo, Suwanee was dog heaven.

Although the house was inside the city limits, it was quite remote, surrounded by forest in all directions. And Kimo was not restrained. He might follow my brothers to the bus stop, then snooze on the patio for a while, then disappear into the woods for an hour. Always, he reappeared before anyone wondered where he was.

However, as the months passed, one hour turned into several hours. And slowly, it became routine for Kimo to be absent for much of the day. Not always, but regularly.

Mom and Dad were a little uncomfortable about it, but not enough to put Kimo on a rope or in an enclosure.

Then came the Piglet Incident.

One day in the fall, Dad purchased a young spotted piglet. Dad’s intention was for the little thing to grow up to become bacon, pork chops, fatback, and ham.

Over the years, the Smiths raised a succession of porkers. They all had names, were halfway to being pets, and ultimately, ended up stocking the family freezer.

But the spotted piglet resided at the Smith house for only about two minutes. The pig broke free from Dad and sped away at full speed, squealing in panic. Kimo took off after him.

It was over in a heartbeat. The mortally wounded piglet had to be put out of its misery.

Although Dad had lost his investment, he tried hard not to blame Kimo. Kimo acted on instinct, Dad said. The dog couldn’t resist fleeing prey. It was a freak occurrence.

Instinct, it probably was. A freak occurrence, no.

At some point that year, Mom and Dad heard that Kimo had been seen a few times roaming the woods with a group of other dogs. Most of them, like Kimo, were local pets that fell together in a loose-knit pack. They were just dogs enjoying life. There were no reports of trouble.

That came soon enough. On various occasions, the dogs were seen overturning trash cans, barking at livestock, treeing cats, and chasing dogs that weren’t part of the pack.

For a time, Dad kept Kimo restrained, and fewer stories surfaced about the roaming pack. Which meant, most likely, that Kimo had been its leader.

The conclusion was unavoidable that step by step, Kimo was undergoing a metamorphosis: he was leaving his humans behind and being drawn to the wild. Looking back, I think it was inevitable.

After Kimo had been restrained for a few weeks, Dad decided that maybe the roaming thing was in check. Kimo was allowed more freedom. All seemed well.

Then, suddenly, Kimo was gone for good.

The Suwanee pack wasn’t seen again, with or without him. But a few months later, a newspaper in Forsyth County, on the other side of the Chattahoochee River, reported that a pack of dogs was on the loose there.

The pack was led by a large dog, wolf-like in appearance. And this time, the pack was involved in serious wild-dog stuff.

At various times, the pack attacked pets, broke into a chicken coop, and menaced a farmer. The sheriff’s office and some local men were searching.

We heard about the pack a number of times after that, most notably when the dogs isolated and killed a calf.

For a long time, the pack stayed ahead of the authorities. Eventually, the stories faded away.

My guess is, the pack leader — and surely it was Kimo — finally was killed. I can’t imagine another explanation.

In addition to his fascinating story, Kimo left behind another legacy.

For 10 years after Kimo came to Suwanee, half the dogs born within 25 miles had his distinctive coloration and physical characteristics.

Timber Trail Kimo.

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Testing My Volunteer Spirit

After my chat with the boy on the hillside, Paco and I continued north along the new section of the Swimming Deer Trail.

About 50 yards beyond the houses, the trail ends at a graded area that slopes down to one of the branches of Sandy Creek. In the wetlands, Sandy Creek has multiple channels.

Ahead was a long row of red marker flags. They stretched in a long curve across the graded area, over a branch of the creek, across a narrow sandbar, over another branch of the creek, up a hillside, and out of sight.

I studied the scene for several minutes, trying to picture the boardwalk following the curve of the flags. Then we turned around and headed back toward the car.

All was quiet when we passed behind the row of houses on the bluff. The boy was gone.

A long time later, about 10 minutes from the trailhead, I heard voices ahead on the trail. I got out Paco’s leash and hooked him up.

(The park requires dogs to be leashed at all times, but that’s a silly rule.)

Soon, four hikers came into view, chattering happily. The group consisted of two 30-something women, a 30-something man, and in the lead, a wiry older gentleman. It was Walt Cook.

I’ve encountered Walt four or five times over the years. We’ve met on local trails a time or two and chatted briefly. A few years ago, we spent a morning working together on a trail maintenance crew.

Walt is a pleasant, friendly fellow, and I always recognize him. But he never remembers me. Or Paco, for that matter.

Each time, when he introduces himself anew, I take no offense. I find it sort of amusing, even endearing. After all, Walt is busy, important, and 80-plus years old.

“Hello,” said Walt when the four hikers reached us. He smiled and extended a hand. “I’m Walt Cook.”

In his other hand was a bundle of red marker flags. I smiled and shook his hand. “I’m Rocky Smith. This is Paco.”

Paco, tail wagging, had assumed his self-taught, belly-to-the-ground position. One of the women cooed and petted him.

The second woman backed away slightly. While being scratched and petted, Paco looked up at the second woman with a Border Collie stare.

Paco has a very intense stare, but it’s benign. The woman didn’t know that.

Standing back as far as the narrow trail allowed, she observed, “Why do they always focus on the person who’s afraid of dogs?”

“Mr. Cook,” I said, “This trail is a whole lot longer than it used to be.”

Walt allowed as how that was true. He said they were on their way to the boardwalk site to place the final marker flags.

Wow, I thought, they’re hiking the trail instead of driving to the neighborhood on the bluff and walking 30 yards. I was impressed.

Walt spoke earnestly, but as usual, showed no sign of recognition. He took his turn petting Paco, but didn’t seem to remember him, either.

A few minutes later, Walt and his friends had continued north, and Paco and I were almost back to the car.

Both of us were tired. In the past, patrolling the Swimming Deer Trail required an out-and-back hike of six miles. From now on, the out-and-back is going to be almost nine miles.

Walt and the parks people are sorely testing my volunteer spirit.

Paco leads the way on the Swimming Deer Trail.

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Not Enough Black

In my last post, I introduced Walt Cook, retired University of Georgia forestry professor, greenspace advocate, and trail-builder extraordinaire.

For decades, Walt has designed and built high-quality hiking trails throughout the region. Athens is Walt’s home, so trailwise, Athens gets a lot of his attention.

Last year, Sandy Creek Park was in the news because of talk about building a boardwalk across the wetlands where Sandy Creek flows into Lake Chapman. The project had been going nowhere because of the high cost.

Then an anonymous donor (anonymous to the public, but probably not to the insiders) offered to pay half the cost of building the boardwalk — half being about $160,000.

Being rational people, the mayor and the council moved quickly to accept the offer before the donor reconsidered.

However, the parks department people politely tried to slow the project down. They favored a boardwalk along the shore of the lake instead of inland through the wetlands.

The free money, however, was contingent on building a wetlands trail.

In a last feeble attempt, the parks people noted at a public hearing that extending the Swimming Deer Trail through the forest to the location of the boardwalk would cost $40,000.

Walt Cook, the trail-building man, now in his 80s, but sound as an oak, stood up. He announced that he had already marked the best route for the trail, and he offered to complete the construction at no cost.

The parks people gave up. The council approved a trail and boardwalk through the wetlands.

Late one morning about two weeks ago, Paco and I drove to Sandy Creek Park to do our monthly duty and patrol the Swimming Deer Trail. We parked at the trailhead, and for the next hour, proceeded up the trail. It was a weekday. We had the trail to ourselves.

Three miles out, when we reached the customary end of the trail, I could see that Walt and his crew had been busy. The trail no longer ends there, but continues down a long slope into a ravine, up the other side, and out of sight.

I wasn’t sure how far the new trail went or how long the hike would take us. But no way could I resist finding out.

The new stretch of trail, I discovered, not only continues all the way to the site of the future boardwalk, but except for blazing, is completely finished and ready for foot traffic.

The trail is level and dry, winding easily around the hillsides and staying 10 feet or so above the wetlands. The area is under a canopy of hardwoods. Several small streams flow down to the lake. Fingers of the lake reach inland here and there. Truly a beautiful setting.

Eventually, we came to an area I knew about, but had never seen: a small residential neighborhood deep in the woods that backs up to the park property.

The homes there were built years ago at the end of a remote rural road on a bluff above Sandy Creek. Nowadays, from their back porches along the bluff, the homeowners look down at park property and a new hiking trail.

In several back yards, shiny new NO TRESPASSING signs faced the trail. No one was in sight. Quietly, we continued past the houses.

Then from the hillside above me, a kid’s voice said, “Hey, mister, what kind of dog is that?”

I looked up to see a boy, about age 10, looking down at me. He was sitting cross-legged under a large tree in his back yard. He had the familiar accent of a local fella.

“Mostly Border Collie,” I answered. “He herds like a Border Collie.”

“He don’t look like no Border Collie.”

“I got him from Animal Control. He may be a mix.”

“He’s too white. Not enough black in his coat.”

“Well, Border Collies come in all patterns and colors,” I said. “Even red.”

“I never heard of no red Border Collie.”

I decided to change the subject. “You got a dog?”

“She’s in the house.”

“What kind of dog is she?”

“We don’t know.”

“What’s her name?”

“Maggie. She’s old. Older’n me.”

“His name is Paco,” I said. “He’s getting old, too.”

The boy went silent. The conversation was over. Paco and I continued down Walt’s new trail.

More about the Swimming Deer Trail and Walt Cook in my next post.


Google Earth image of the wetlands above Lake Chapman.

Section of boardwalk on Cook’s Trail.

Paco (mostly white, mostly Border Collie) on the Swimming Deer Trail.


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