My second experience with veterinary medicine was around 1958 or 1959. It took place down at the Sinclair service station next to the Park Hills Baptist Church. The first experience was with an actual veterinarian who gave my new puppy some worm pills and couple of shots. Daddy said that was expensive and we wanted to not have to do that very often. We wouldn’t be going to the movies or eat out any time soon after that.
The man at the service station was different. He let me have a jar of burnt motor oil for free. That stuff killed fleas, ticks, and soothed the itching caused by red mite mange. I had never thought about such things until I found a flea crawling on my arm. It worked so well that I decided to share it with the dawg. Since we got to go to the movies just a few days later, I decided to always check at the Sinclair station first before asking daddy to take my sick dawg to a real vet.
Sometimes I’d ride my bicycle down there and sweep up a bit, and empty trash cans. I wanted the service station man to not be sorry to see me coming. It was the beginning of my recognizing the power of underground economics.
Years later when gasoline had gone up to about twenty-five cents a gallon due to inflation, I discovered that the service station man had a stretch of grass on the street side of the lot that needed mowing about once a week in the summertime. Me ‘n him talked about it, and decided it needed mowing about a quarter’s worth. The rest of that gasoline was used to fund an entrepreneurial project involving various lawns around the neighborhood.
It also was involved in keeping my own yard mowed. Daddy didn’t have to pay me because he said it was his lawnmower I was using. Seems like Dad knew about underground economics, too. Even my dawg must have figured it out since he lived in the basement (which was underground), and never had to pay so much as a penny for room and board.
All this got started when a neighbor came home with two mongrel puppies, and intended to keep one of them for his children to play with. He asked my father if I might like to have one. In a rare moment of weakness, Dad agreed that I would enjoy a pet. As soon as the little rascal was placed in my hands, the deal was sealed. It was so young that we practically had to teach it how to eat, but after eating, it figured out what to do next all on its own. Along about that time, I found out that you could use a shovel for a lot of things besides digging a hole, and I soon became educated in some of those uses.
The little mixed-breed puppy was so small and helpless, and had its future depended entirely on what I knew about taking care of it, the chances of it making it through the week would have been slim. Daddy had picked up a few cans of dawg food at the Community Cash grocery store on his way home from work. Looking back on things, I’m sure it was the cheapest dawg food available. I was not the least bit concerned about that. Like a lot of high dollar stuff, I assumed the more expensive brands that got favorable advertising on television must be for the kinds of folks that, as Daddy said: “have more dollars than they got cents,” whatever that meant.
Dad warmed up a few spoonfuls of the canned food mixed with a bit of milk, but not much milk mind you, ’cause we had to save some for our cereal, and a few drops for Dad’s coffee. He used a sause pan that Mama had not used in years. Some where along the way, he’d bought her some new ones. She had a few old favorites, but this was not one of ’em. Dad said since we weren’t really needing it for anything else, it could be the puppy’s dish. Besides, after we put dawg food in it, Mama wasn’t going to cook with it anymore, anyway.
The pan was set to the side for a few minutes to cool, and I sat in the floor of the kitchen looking at the puppy. But the baby dawg didn’t seem to be looking back directly. Mama said its eyes probably opened for the first time a day or so before we got it, so I’m sure it was having to learn how to look in about the same way it was having to learn how to eat.
We had a basement under part of the house. My father dug it himself with a shovel and a pick. He’d poured a concrete floor, and some walls up to the ground level. He had the forethought to also put a square hole at the lowest point of the basement floor, and fit it with a sump pump. That way when it rained, the water wouldn’t flood the basement. I remember being fascinated with that electric pump at first, and also learned that it wasn’t grounded very well. It might give you a shock if you fooled with it much. Daddy found that he didn’t have to remind me not to fool with it, as that pump had a way of standing up for itself under the circumstances.
At night, the puppy was assigned sleeping quarters in the basement which was located directly under my parent’s bedroom. My sisters & I could sleep soundly, but Mama said that whining baby dawg kept them up most of the night for the first couple of weeks. I’m sure Daddy had some choice vocabulary to describe his deep sense of repentance for ever allowing us to have the pup in the first place, but I never heard a bit of it at the time.
Besides the concrete floor and sidewalls, Dad engineered a set of concrete steps coming out of the basement, and built a doorway that extended a few feet back of the house. It was like a shed, and had a roof that matched the rest of the house. The sides were lined with shelves so Mom & Dad would have a place to store things soon to be covered in cobwebs and forgotten about. There was a pull chain in the entrance that turned a light on in the basement so you could see in there at night.
You didn’t need it in the daytime, because of the huge glass windows Dad had installed to let in the sunlight. I found out later that these windows had originally been part of a railroad passenger car that was being scrapped. Whenever the railroad decided to throw something away, my father had a way of finding a use for it. The railroad bought paint by the barrels and five gallon pails.
Evidently it was not thought to be efficient for railroad employees to drain the very last drop from these containers while on the clock. But after work, Dad found that a pint here and there would eventually make up a gallon or two. He had more time than money in those days, and a man trying to come up with a way to turn time into money could use a few gallons of paint if he was willing to work. Dad worked hard most of the time, and seemed to enjoy it, which is a trait that skipped a generation when it came to me.
I often wondered about the junk pile down at the freight shop. I figured it would be huge and out of control were it not for my dad keeping it cleared out as often as he did. Dad had a lot of projects, and most of ’em had something to do with making sure my sisters and I had food to eat, and clothes to wear. But at any rate, I thought those thick metal framed windows were about the coolest part of our house. A boy could go down into the basement, and imagine himself to be in a spaceship. Touching the sump pump provided the energy for takeoff every time.
Whenever we put the puppy in the basement, he would always climb the steps trying to follow us out. He could manage going up, but going back down was a problem. The height of each step was about as long as his body, and under such circumstances, most of you wouldn’t attempt such a descent on all fours, either. So, he’d sit on each step and kind of slide down to the next level banging his butt each time, and accompanying each bang with a little yelp.
I thought it was quite comical to watch, and let out a silly giggle. Daddy looked over at me, and asked me how I’d feel if I had to whop my bottom on four or five concrete slabs before I could go to bed every night. I think that was a lesson in empathy. Daddy said dawgs don’t think much like people. He said if a boy didn’t take care of his dawg’s needs, and have some concern for how his dawg felt, he had no business having a dawg in the first place.
Daddy was stern about saying a man that was mean to a dawg was an example of sorriness, and wouldn’t deserve any sympathy from the Lord come judgement. Being reminded of a coming judgement was a habit he’d picked up from my granddaddy, and I guess it was his way of planting some seed of caution in case I was planning a life of debauchery, sin, and crime. I was at the age of about ten at the time, and the depth of my wickedness didn’t amount to much worth bragging about. In time, I improved, but to no degree that would make the newspapers.
Sitting in the kitchen holding the puppy while the mix of milk and a few spoonfuls out of a can of dawg food cooled, I experimented with the little rascal. I’d place him on the floor, and slide a few inches away. The baby animal would whimper and follow me trying to crawl back up in my lap. Dad laughed and said:
“Well son, looks like you have a little mascot to follow you around. Whatcha gonna name him?”
I don’t think I’d ever heard the word “mascot” before, and wasn’t sure what it meant. So, I said the word out loud almost as a question:
Dad said that it was up to me to name him, and if I wanted to call him “Mascot”, he figured that would be okay. Daddy told me I’d have to say it out loud a lot, and say it every time I wanted the puppy to come to me. Said the dawg had no notion of names and such as that, but he’d get familiar with the sound of it if it meant there was some food or loving associated with it. I remember asking him if that’s how they taught me my name, and he just laughed. Soon the puppy was responding to the new handle, and I was responding to cries for affection. I had a mascot named “Mascot”, and he had a mascot named “Van”, although he couldn’t pronounce it. But I always knew when he was calling me.
As the puppy got older, he seldom went into the basement anymore. Didn’t seem to care for it. It could’a been the sounds of family up above that made him come out and sit by the back door. It could’a been the sump pump, I don’t know. But rain or shine, we’d find Mascot on the back steps. Even if we took him down to the basement, he wouldn’t stay.
Finally, Dad put up a small pen beside the garage out back, and built a dawg house We called it a garage, but it was more of a barn, and a work shop. I don’t think the car was ever parked in there after the first week it was built. Besides tools, ladders, drop cloths, drop cords, paint brushes, buckets, lumber and other scrap the railroad didn’t have use for, Dad built a tiny office in the back. Sometimes he’d stay out there late at night and study things. When dad wasn’t working, he was studying about working.
Mascot would stay in his pen at night, but most of the time he was free to roam, and he did. In those days, most everybody’s dawg had free range of our neighborhood. A dawg might get into mischief out and about, but that was no concern to a ten year old boy who had no knowledge of it. I’m sure cars, cats and other dawgs were being chased, and no doubt a few trash cans got knocked over. By running loose, shovel duty in my own yard was minimized, but it probably meant some extra duty somewhere by some other poor soul who had none of the benefit of playing with, and petting my wonderful dawg.
He had a sense of whenever school would be out, and was always waiting for me to play. In the fall of the year during football season, I stayed at school for practice. On those days, Mascot would come looking for me.
Coach had a way of positioning us in the lineup by moving us about by our shoulders like chess pieces. Mascot got aggravated when he saw the coach touch me, and a confrontation began. Mascot wouldn’t back down, and more than once I had to leave practice and take my dawg home, and pen him up. Coach never did like my dawg, and because of it, I don’t think he ever liked me very much, either. It could’ve been the way some of the other boys made fun of the coach for seeming to be a little afraid of my scroungy mutt.
It was normal for me ‘n the dawg to have a short frisky play session after school. Then, I’d get about the business of acting like I was doing homework, and Mascot would take off for an afternoon romp. That was the routine. As soon as I went inside, he’d tear off down the street. I kind of looked up to the dawg in a way. He had his own agenda, and seemed to know what to do. Little did I know what kind of a risks might be associated with that kind of freedom.
But as soon as I went back out in the yard and called his name, he’d come running, and he always got a reward for coming when called. He always got petting, and loving, and some kind of snack. When I couldn’t afford puppy treats, which was regular, I’d find some leftovers not likely targeted as part of Mama’s dinner plans. Later, it got to where I only called him at supper time. That became, and was still the regular practice even by the time I was past eleven.
With dawgs and cats that run loose, there is always the potential that sooner or later, the night would arrive when they just don’t come home anymore. A child has a harder time dealing with it than some adults, but my experience was not so unique that a few million other kids wouldn’t have a similar story. A wandering dawg can be a nuisance to some folks. I know that now, but I had no understanding of it then.
A couple of years went by. In time, another unwanted litter happened upon the world, and as luck would have it, Dad had a weak moment again. The whole family was soon gathered in the kitchen watching me play with a new puppy. He was an incredibly cute little fella, but from the size of his paws, he was destined to put on quite a few pounds before it was over. He had an unusual habit. instead of just wagging his tail, he thumped it on the linoleum in a drumming fashion. Dad laughed and said:
“Look at him slapping the floor with his tail like a beaver! Whatcha gonna call him?”
“Beaver?” I asked. Not realizing I was just surprised with the strange analogy, Dad said:
“Well okay then. Never heard of a dawg named Beaver, but if that’s what you want to call him…”
He didn’t look anything remotely like a beaver. The name made no sense at all. So, we named him that. By this time, Dad had fenced in the entire back yard, so Beaver was not allowed to go off on his own. He never dug out, or jumped the fence…well, one time he did.
Beaver lived with us for a few years. It was a happy time for the most part, but during all that time, my dad never got over the sense of remorse for being so weak as to let me keep him in the first place. My dad took some pride in the shrubbery, but the dawg felt differently about it. Beaver dug holes for no good reason in places where Dad had to walk, and consequently, Dad turned his ankle one day. One time my father tracked something into the house that got Mama upset, and Dad’s control of the English language was put to a test.
But the worst sin was the uncontrollable friskiness that made him want to jump on everybody that came into the yard. The ratio of occurrence seemed to be directly related to how much mud was in the yard, and how nicely a person was dressed should they come in contact with him. Whenever Mother was dressed for church, she would steer clear of Beaver, but the rest of us managed to gather up some paw prints on whatever we were wearing.
During an otherwise quiet early summer’s day afternoon , my baby sister went out into the back yard to play. Beaver wanted to play, too. But when he jumped up, he was taller than my little sister, and knocked her to the ground. This act sealed his fate; he had committed the unforgivable sin.
Dad heard the scream a block away, and looked up to see my dawg standing on top of her. Dad was helping a neighbor paint their porch at the time. He thought the dawg was attacking his baby girl. He still had a paint brush in his hand as he cleared three fence hurdles in his mad rush to save his child. Dad chased Beaver all over the back yard calling out names that even a dawg would find embarrassing. As Dad charged at him, Beaver jumped the fence, and Dad, who was running out of steam and adrenalin for high jumps, crawled over after him, but never lost his grip on the paint brush.
This went on for about twenty or thirty minutes. Dad would chase the dawg angrily shaking his paint brush, and over the fences they would go back and forth, back and forth; first Beaver, then Dad. The circus toured three connecting back yards, and by now had drawn quite a crowd. Neighbors stood at their doors and windows looking out, and every driveway in sight was standing room only. Out by the street, three carloads of people had pulled over to watch.
I’m sure they all wanted a first-hand glimpse at an “unadulterated and despicable example of a worthless four legged monstrosity; a genuine class-A illegitimate son of a mighty fine mongrel skunk-hyena beast of unquestionably degenerated morals” that was being advertised, and they all wanted to see its head ripped from its body and shoved backwards (without benefit of anesthesia) into its own digestive tract, and then thrown in a highly stylized, expressive, and determined manner into the “fiery gates of vulcan perdition and torment with no hope of appeal, or redemption, and all backed with the full authority of the Almighty’s terrible wrath at the hands of his capable and willing servant”. Dad’s actual words may have been slightly different, but everybody that could hear him knew this is what he meant.
Finally exhausted, Dad gave up. By then, Mama had checked to make sure Bonnie was okay, and she was. The dawg didn’t hurt her, and had not intended to, but his playfulness had knocked her down thus frightening her a bit. It’s funny, but I have no memory of where my other sister, Rhonda was at the time. I’m pretty sure she would have been at home with the rest of us.
Dad sat on the ground, perspiring, and breathing heavily with his arms hanging limply by his sides as he leaned back against the fence. Somehow, Beaver was on one side of a fence and Dad on the other. Beaver was wagging his tail, and trying to lick Daddy though the fence. Although my father couldn’t stand up, his voice was still strong enough, and vile words that would make the most hardened criminal blush gushed forth with a magnitude that would set hymnals ablaze, but Beaver kept wagging his tail.
Dad’s paint brush was a mess. The ferrule that held what was left of the disheveled bristles was sideways, and the handle was broken. It wouldn’t be fit for dusting out a fireplace, but Dad still held on to it firmly. Finally Dad said to me:
“Boy, come git yer dawg!”
Then, my father stood up, and went into the house. I knew the business about knocking down my sister was not going to go away. Instead, the dawg was going to have to go away. Dad said we couldn’t keep the animal here anymore, because we couldn’t run the risk of having that happen again. Beaver couldn’t take the stand in his own defense, and my attempts to tell Daddy that Beaver never meant to hurt anybody carried no weight at all. It wasn’t about intentions; it was about fact. Fact is, the dawg knocked my baby sister down, and though she was not hurt this time, she could have been. Dad was not going to allow his little girl to be afraid to go into her own back yard.
I knew it was coming, but I didn’t expect it to be so fast. The very next day, my father found a new home for my dawg. Mr. Petty worked at a store not far from our house. He lived out in the country on a farm. He said Beaver would have a nice run of open fields, meadows and a stretch of woods by a stream. He told me I could come out there and visit any time to play with Beaver, and I could even go fishing in his pond, but I never did.
I took it hard at the time, but it was years later before I realized what my father was dealing with. Shortly after I got home from overseas, my dad said to me:
“Son, I should have never given your dawg away. That it was a terrible thing to do to a boy. I’ve felt bad about that incident all these years, and sometimes couldn’t sleep too good ’cause of it. When you went to Vietnam, I worried every day about a lot of things. I was afraid something might happen, and I felt like it was my fault you was over there. It might sound a little crazy, but I also worried I wouldn’t ever get the chance to tell you I was sorry about making you give up Beaver.”
I told Dad that it was hard at the time, but I understood his reasoning. I assured him I would not have been able to live with myself had that stupid dawg hurt little Bonnie. I told him that had it been my little girl, I’d have had to do something, too. Dad said he appreciated me saying that but it was still wrong. I said he really didn’t have much choice at the time: it was either the dawg or my sister, Bonnie. Dad smiled a little and said:
“I reckon. Looking back, I don’t think Mr. Petty was ready to take Bonnie to raise, and besides, your mama would’ve gone with her.”
All kinds of things go on between fathers and sons. Some things are good, and some things probably never get dealt with in a proper manner. It is sad to hear of regrets about what should have been done, or should have been said. But Dad and I had managed to seldom have those kinds of issues between us. On this day, we both got closure on something that I’m sure the rest of the world would consider such a small thing, and would not be worried about at all. On this day, we put something behind us…or, at least at the time, I thought we did.
Years later when I brought home a puppy for my own children to play with, Dad brought it up again. So, we talked about it again. I did everything I knew how to let my father know he didn’t need to ever worry about it anymore. Somehow, what I thought was long forgotten was still bothering him. By the time this conversation took place, I had not felt any anger or frustration about that dawg for a long time, but he had carried it around in his head for way more than twenty years.
I was moved by what Dad said, and felt a little guilty to find out it had bothered him so long, and especially for any part I had in causing him to feel bad. We put another fresh coat of smiles on some old scratches that day, and I hoped that would be sufficient. But I did wonder, if only for a minute, what Mr. Petty might have said if we had offered to give him my baby sister instead of the dawg. I reckon not. The dawg would have been long gone by now, but as it is, I still have both of my sisters. Neither of them ever developed a habit of jumping on people and knocking them down. But, they are both capable of it, I’m sure of that.