Sunday, September 8, 2013

Perfect memories of an imperfect pet

From Western Illinois Family Magazine

I'm always pleased when the cover story of this magazine is something I can relate to. And, in fact, "Finding the Perfect Family Pet" is spot-on in a ironic, twisted kind of way. Because here's the thing: No one has never accused me of having any kind of judgement when it comes to the pets that have ruled my life over the years.
Those dogs, cats, turtles, fish and other lesser species that have shared my space have--each and every one of them--been famous, and sometimes infamous, in their own way.
II could go back in time and tell the eerie story of the identical yapping, snapping squirrel-hating rat terriers that each showed up on my dad's doorstep on halloween night, over 40 years apart.  Or I could hearken back to the infinite, nearly indistinguishable menagerie of black cats named Doobie that harassed my poor feline-allergic mother as if she was invisibly coated with a thick layer of Little Friskies Carp-Head Delight. Or I could jump ahead a few decades and regale you with tales of Roscoe, the soft-hearted pitbull, who I'm pretty sure my older son insisted we adopt because he went well with the SuperFly-style faux-leather car coat he had picked up at a rummage sale. That dog was the meanest looking thing on four legs, yet had such a sweet, retiring disposition that he would creep out the room at the first sign of any kind of argument or unrest, and allowed our neighbor's Shih Tzus to unceasingly paw and gnaw on him as he lay in our front yard sniffing flowers, not unlike Ferdinand the Bull. I could even complain a bit about the recalcitrant housecat named Max, who currently rules the roost, reminding me of that fact every morning with sharp nips on my calves if I fail to rustle up his breakfast quickly enough.
But, the fact is, there is just one pet who deserves the title of most infamous, most quirky and, well, most imperfect.
His name was Whitey.
Whitey had two, and only two, driving forces in his life. Food and love.
Or, more precisely, garbage cans and girl dogs.
This put us at odds a lot of the time.  And if you were keeping score on who got what they wanted, he would have been way ahead.
When we owned Whitey, we lived in a house with a huge back yard.  It was a wonderful place, filled with sunny open spaces and shady tree-filled pockets; a perfect place for a dog to live his life in ease and comfort.
Not Whitey.
He used that yard for a successful base of operations that targeted every trash can and female dog in a 10-block radius. Once we got clued into the fact he wasn’t going to be content to stick around, we began making him come indoors when we weren’t out in the yard to restrain him.
No dice.
The dog was a veritable Houdini, able to slip out of any unattended, unlatched door without detection.  When we responded by locking exits, he began an assault on our doors and windows that kept the local lumberyard and its screen and glass repair business on daily alert for years.  He started with the screens.  I’d walk into a room and find a perfect dog-shaped hole in a door or window screen, letting me know that Whitey was, once again, on the town.  I tried closing windows, and he discovered that glass is only, well, glass, and was easily broken by a determined dog with love on the brain and a high tolerance for pain.  Thinking I’d thwart him by locking him upstairs, he, after stewing about it for a few days, discovered that one of the upstairs windows looked out onto a porch roof.  The jump off that roof was only about seven or eight feet.  Crash. Thump. Gone!
While Whitey’s exploits were many and varied, one of the most remarkable had to do with a neighbor a couple of blocks away, who had, of course, a female dog.  After making his escape late one night, Whitey got that lovin’ feeling, and trotted over for a visit.  It was a warm night, so just a screen door blocked the front entrance to the house.  One dog-shaped hole later, Whitey was in the house and heading upstairs in search of the object of his affections.  As the story goes, the lady of the house woke up just in time to see Whitey peering into their bedroom.
“Wake up, wake up, there’s a dog in the house,” she cried to her sleeping husband.
He woke up, looked, and said, “That’s not a dog, it’s only Whitey.”  Alarmed, Whitey exited by the first means available, a back window, bringing that evening’s destruction count up to two screened openings.  After receiving an early phone call and alerting the lumber yard, I made my way over to retrieve a now guilt-ridden dog, who had, however, been unable to bring himself to leave the home of his beloved.  I took him straightaway to the local veterinarian’s office for a procedure designed to cool his ardor, if not increase his intelligence.
Being “fixed” didn’t really cure Whitey’s wanderlust, it just redirected it.  He still visited girl dogs, as a consultant, I guess, and became even more of a garbage aficionado, if that was possible. He became a kind of collector, as well.  I would find interesting things in my yard: clothing, tin cans, kids’ outdoor toys, and, even, part of a fishing pole one time.  But the highlight was when he discovered an ample supply of pig skulls stored at the hog processing plant that was then on the edge of my hometown.  It must have taken him all night going back and forth, because when I stepped out into the back yard the next morning, it looked like a Georgia O’Keefe desert landscape, with bleached skulls dotting the terrain as far as the eye could see.
The thing is, that despite his many transgressions, Whitey was still our dog, and we loved him.  When caught red-pawed in some petty crime, he would roll over on his side, slowly thump his tail, and plead for understanding with his big brown eyes.  So we forgave him.  Again and again.
As he got older, his lifestyle caught up with him in the form of a heart condition that the vet said would force him to live his remaining days as a dog-invalid, sheltered from noise and excitement by confinement in a quiet, darkened room.  I got that news from my wife while I was at work one day, and drove home worrying about him and thinking about how his weakened state would finally slow him down. It seemed the life-long battle between man and dog was finally over, though I wouldn’t have chosen to win that way.
As I pulled into the driveway, I saw Whitey lying in the back yard under the shade of his favorite lilac bush.  Wondering why he was outdoors unattended and fearing the worst, I walked over to him.
He rolled onto his side, as his tail thumped gently in the grass.  I looked into his big brown eyes, then I glanced back at the house.
There, in the back door screen, was a perfect dog-shaped hole.

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