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.

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.