Thursday, August 27, 2015

It's a Dog's Life

There's Skaggs...gray muzzled and shaggy, slow to rise, memorialized forever on a snowy trail in the Missouri woods by my mother's paintbrush.  And Nip and Tuck, gargantuan leaping licking Labs, terrifyingly huge as they clawed the back door of our 1960s Dodge Darts.  In their puppyish exuberance, they could and would knock over small children. These were the first dogs I remember, the dogs that met us in the driveway of Granny and Grandpa's country home.

Patty was Uncle Dean's dog, a speckled Pointer who patrolled her yard tirelessly, eyeing us like possible prey with her watchful restless golden eye.  I knew nothing of hunting dogs, but read Dean's library of hunting and fishing books voraciously, developing a healthy respect for the diligence and instincts of bird dogs.
We were petless when we moved from Chicago to the farm in Calloway county until Grafin came along.  She was just a pup, part collie and whatever else.  She had tender liquid brown eyes and an amazing fur coat.  When happy, she was all pink tongue and wag.  Laura and I showered her with attention, but, like kids will, she flourished under the rules and discipline of my father, sitting, staying and coming when called.  All dogs loved my mother, sensing, no doubt, the inner sweetness of spirit she possesses.  Unlike the neighbor's fierce and frightening German Shepherds, Grafin was a gentle spirit, a companionable presence, a welcoming committee to visitors.  She was the farm dog from  my high school years, college, and a move to a new farm yard and garden in Moniteau county.  There, thinner under all that fur and white up to her eyes, she would still bestir herself to come up to the car and meet two more young girls, Lee and Ann.  Some time before she passed, my folks brought two new puppies into the fold, Maggie and Maud.  One of our very favorite photos shows a very young Lee in a summery outfit of t shirt and Pampers, bending down to give Maudie a smooch.  I don't think I am stretching when I describe Maud's expression as beatific.
By that time, our family had a dog of our very own.  Our first doggie was an adoptee we saw on the evening newscast in Columbia while we were just married and still in college.  We weren't looking for a dog, but the puppies described as part Doberman and part German Shepherd somehow grabbed our attention and Juno, just a little thing, nearly all black with a tail that threatened to absolutely wag the dog, stole our hearts.  Every weekend that spring, she traveled back and forth from Columbia to northwest Missouri where we worked on our little rental house instead of farming that rainy rainy spring.  She curled up quietly on the floor behind the driver's seat and spent most of the trip snoozing.  The neighbor's dog would terrorize her if we left her tied up at the duplex in Columbia, so, she joined up indoors during the week, always a lady. Soon, she had no need for that dispensation, growing long tan legs and the stature of her forebears.

Juno thought of herself as a farmhand, not a farm dog.  She left with Blake every morning, whether that meant riding alongside him in the pickup or atop the tool box in the back.  Most days she'd run in front of whatever implement he was driving....a tractor cultivating corn or disking stalk ground.  Harvest time would find her waiting patiently in the truck cab or even the cab of the tractor running the unloading auger.  The best days in dog-dom were spent tirelessly chasing whatever critters were scared up by the combine....rabbits, mice, pheasants, or those little whirring gray birds you only see after dark in the combine lights.  We'd always wonder if she'd take a day off after those long evenings, but first thing in the morning, Juno would be ready and waiting to leap up into the cab when Blake opened the door.

Our farm attracted dogs like a picnic does ants.  Word somehow got out on the canine network that any abandoned, lost, or dumped dog with a friendly aspect and a sad story would be fed and patted and not run off by the dogs already in residence.  A family of four...and then five...soon had a commensurate number of dogs swarming the front door when they heard us stirring, meeting the bus when kids got on in the morning and off in the afternoon.  Dogs with all matter of idiosyncrasies and foibles called our wide open spaces home....Tommy and Holly drove me to distraction as puppies, un-digging new roses, shrubs, and perennials with which I attempted to civilize the barren yard.  I could only hope Lee and Ann did not understand the epithets I screamed at the uncomprehending puppies as I chased them through the yard with some desiccated plant body.  Frisky was a beautiful black dog, sleek and affectionate, but with an insatiable desire to drag clothes off the line.  Mister was another stranger that made himself at home off the street: he was too well mannered to jump on us, but the kids loved to lift his paws so he would 'dance' with them.  Bob was big all over, with a giant head and soulful eyes.  He was smart, friendly, and knew enough tricks that we were certain someone would come looking for him. To our combined delight and concern, Bob outdid himself at the 4th of July, pursuing lighted fireworks of all sizes and ferocity and attempting to fetch them.  When other dogs were AWOL under the porch, we had no choice but to confine Bob for his own safety.

The downside of a  farm dog's life is its danger.  The listing of beloved animals that fell prey to trailer and truck tires by accident or sheer wanton stupidity is long and sad and reads like the lyrics of a Lyle Lovett song:

Now there was great Uncle Julius
And there was Aunt Annie Mueller
And Mary and granddaddy Paul
And there was Hanna and Ella
And Alvin and Alec and he owned his own funeral hall

And there are more I remember
And more I could mention
Than words I could write in a song
But I feel them watching and I see them laughing
And I hear them singing along

Indeed, our doggy friends come and go, sometimes a brief time, others living out their long warm days under the elms by the back door.  They are as much a part of our landscape as the wind. 

A farm without dogs is missing a piece of its soul......

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