The Dog Days of Summer

These hot August days remind me of Chico, the dog we had when I was in college and for several years after.  Chico was a German shepherd mix that I brought home from Knoxville as a tiny puppy.  He lived in a shoe box under my bed in the dorm for a few days, until I

Best friend in college!  Ok, Sallie was too.
Best friend in college! Ok, Sallie was too.

could get him home to the farm.  Despite being so young he didn’t know how to eat food yet, he persevered and grew into a 100-pound dog (with much care from Mother and Daddy).

Although I was away most of the time at school, he seemed to never forget that I was the one who rescued him, and he was devoted to me.  That devotion was tested to the extreme when I tried to get a tan during the summer break.

Tanning was a bad idea from the word go.  I had dark hair, but was very pale and had light hazel eyes, sure signs of a skin cancer magnet.  However, nobody knew about those things back in the day, and every teenage girl had to have a tan.  I would “lay out” on a collapsible chaise lounge on the concrete walkway in front of our house on a hot day, covering myself in SPF8 Coppertone (the highest strength then!) and shaking water on from Mother’s sprinkle bottle to cool off.

Chico was determined to be as close to me as possible, so he would lie in the sun next to my chair, panting.  This made him miserable, so his next move was to get underneath the chair in the small patch of shade.  That made me miserable, having a big, hot dog sweating under the chair, so I made him move.  He retreated to the shade at the side of the house, panting until he cooled down some.  Then the cycle repeated until we were both too hot to bear it, and I went in the air-conditioned house.

To this day, when I hear the drone of cidadas (dry flies, we called them) and the hum of unit air conditioners, I’m carried back to the young, skinny me, resolutely turning pink in pursuit of fashion, and that oversized, black-and-tan German shepherd panting in the sun.  All he ever got out of it besides my company was Nehi Orange, which he learned to drink from the bottle.

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The “Go Home” Button

I’m now doing a commute by car to Long Island, an hour or more each way depending on traffic.  There are a number of alternate routes, some more obscure than others.  I was aware of a few of them but I’ve learned a great deal in the past few months from the Traffic

Chico and me on the farm
Chico and me on the farm

Alert function on my GPS.  It’s nothing fancy, a refurbished Garmin Nuvi, but I’ve learned to listen when it yells, “Severe traffic ahead!  Recalculating!”

It has taken me on scenic tours of parts of the Bronx to avoid traffic jams, some a lovely surprise like Pelham Bay Park or the Moshulu Parkway, which winds around in back of the Bronx Zoo, and others where I wished I had an armed guard riding shotgun with me.  It sent me through Queens in a snowstorm, winding through a few ethnic neighborhoods and then ending on the LIE (Long Island Expressway, for my non-New-York readers.)  I found out later it avoided  a car fire on the Cross Island Expressway.

All in all, it’s a learning experience, if an exhausing one sometimes.  My favorite function of all is the button on screen labeled “Go Home.”  Wherever I may be, I can touch Go Home and the satellite will guide me, around traffic and obstacles, the fastest way home that it sees.

On these long drives I get into a contemplative mood (unless someone cuts me off) and I have started wishing for a “Go Home” button in my life.  Sort of like Dorothy clicking her heels in the “Wizard of Oz,” but I’d like to be able to go through time and space to places, times and sometimes people when I felt safe and loved, or pleased and happy, or just content, and revisit them again.

I guess that’s a function memory serves.  But I would like to see Mother frying chicken, walk with Daddy to the tobacco barn, my dog trailing behind and startling birds or rabbits, or listen to my uncle Jesse (known as Fatty because he was so thin as a boy) playing guitar and singing old songs.  I’d like to eat my first meal in Paris, in a faded bistro with a fat old German shepherd eyeing my dessert.  I’d like to be back at Bear Lake in the summer on the pontoon boat with the cooling breeze of the boat’s motion.  I’d like to be there.

Until someone invents a time machine I’ll have to keep working with memory, and trying to add more to that vault of good feelings, and trying to forget the bad ones.  Peace out, and have a good week.

Tribulations of a Black Cat

Nemo, last Halloween

My current cat, Nemo, is the second black tomcat I have had in my life.  He leads a fairly pampered existence and is unconscionably self-satisfied, as well as fat.  I fostered him for Forgotten Felines after he was abandoned in an apartment.  Needless to say I ended up keeping him (or he condescended to stay with me).  He’s lucky, because I have heard that black male cats are the last ones to be adopted from shelters.

He’s also luckier in many ways than the black tomcat I had on the farm as a teenager.  Someone had dropped him at the small grocery store and gas station miles from our house.  I had been sent to get some milk, and came home with the cat, much to Mother’s disapproval.  I named him Firecat, after the Cat Stevens album, but that lasted about two hours.  Mother said, “You can’t name him something I’m embarrassed to call out the back door,” and changed his name to Tom.

Tom, like most farm cats, got minimal care other than feeding and watering.  He lived outside summer and winter, spending cold nights in the barn.  I petted him, but he was not a cuddler.

Tom’s life was pretty good for a farm cat until I brought home another stray when I was in college, a tiny German shepherd mix puppy I named Chico.  Tom smacked the puppy with impunity and generally lorded over him.  But puppies grow, and before long Chico was even bigger than the average German shepherd.

Chico came up with a new game.  He closed his jaws around Tom’s head and carried him around the yard, the cat’s body hanging out of his mouth.  You could hear the cat’s muffled “meows.”  He never left a mark on Tom, but the poor cat must have been terrified.  I yelled at the dog until he dropped the cat, but I’m sure he did this a lot when I wasn’t there to intervene.  Tom started disappearing between mealtimes and staying well out of the dog’s reach.  Then he became very nervous–Mother thought he got hold of a mouse poisoned by strychnine, for he was high-strung and panicked at any sudden noise.

Tom finally moved to the woods and the barn, and would not come back even to eat.  I called him and called him.  At first he would answer me from the woods, but he wouldn’t come.  Then he didn’t answer.  He showed up at Aunt Lou’s house a few times, half a mile away.  Then he was gone for good.  He didn’t even come home to die, for Chico was still there.

Best Dog Ever

Chico and me on the farm

I grew up with dogs and cats, generally one dog at a time and, when we moved to the farm, multiple half-wild cats.  I loved them all, but Chico was the best dog.

I was in school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.  Walking down the Strip, a slightly seedy street lined with delis, head shops and bookstores, I saw a man standing on the corner with a box of tiny puppies.  “The mother’s a purebred German shepherd, but some mutt got to her, ” he said.  “If people don’t take the puppies I’m going to drown them.”

I was stricken.  I immediately hatched a desperate plan.  I took the only puppy who was marked black and tan like a German shepherd and took him back to my dorm room.  He lived in a box under my bed for a few days.  I named him Chico, because he was a little boy and because I liked the Marx Brothers.  I took him to the vet, who told me he was only 4 weeks old, and gave him vitamins.  Then I bummed a ride home for the weekend and took him to my parents’ farm.

Mother was not thrilled when I turned up with a puppy in a shoebox.  There was no question of him living in the house–pets were never allowed inside–and the weather was cold.  Daddy built a small doghouse from bits of wood and insulated it with styrofoam.  He put a light on an industrial extension cord, put the light in a coffee can, and wrapped it in a towel, so Chico had a space heater.  He even put an alarm clock in a towel so Chico wouldn’t cry.   Then he fenced a tiny yard with loose bricks so Chico couldn’t wander away. 

Chico never looked back.  He grew into a 110-pound German shepherd, always gentle, loving and patient with all the grandchildren.  He was devoted to my parents and never bit a soul.  Chico liked to take my wrist in his mouth, shake it, and let it go.  I thought nothing of it until I saw him crack a hambone in his jaws.  When I brought a boyfriend home he would walk between me and the guy.  He didn’t growl.  He didn’t need to.

After Daddy died suddenly Chico became Mother’s guard dog and protector.  He still roamed the farm and cadged food from the neighbors.  When he was 11 years old, feeble and shaky, he had to be put down.   I’ve never had a dog since then.  I’m pretty much a cat person now.  But I’m glad I brought that puppy home.