Remember the Willie Nelson classic, To All the Girls I've Loved Before? Well, with a nod to Willie, I'm in the mood to write about all the boys I've loved before. However, MY boys just happen to be the five great dogs that have shared my life for the past 30 plus years. These guys made me laugh, softened my hard edges, and taught me valuable lessons about love, responsibility, and communication. Here are snapshots of the Magnificent Five:
Virgil, 1970-72 -- was an ugly little mixed breed that lived with me during Peace Corps Volunteer days on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. I rescued him from a village in the countryside and brought him to the big city of Basseterre. Frankly he was so ugly that I made him lie on the floor of the mini-moke (a glorified golf cart that we PC Volunteers used for tooling around the island) for the trip to his new home. We shared a little house by the sea, which was handy because he and I would meet the fishing boats that came to shore at dawn to buy fish. We both subsisted on fish and rice and fresh bread, sausage and cheese sold at the neighborhood shops. Virgil also shared my daily slice of cake. Yes, I'll admit to having a cake schedule--baked a different variety each week. Don't underestimate the importance of rituals in new surroundings! Virgil's main job, however, was House Bouncer. Fellow convent school teachers and other PCVs often stopped to chat in the evenings. We'd sit on the porch, watching the Caribbean sunsets and solving all our problems--usually with the opposite sex. When I grew tired of the hippie angst, Virgil got to come on the porch and give everyone a proper crotch sniff--guaranteed to close down the party.
We lived together for three years and then, when my tour of service was complete, I entrusted him to a St. Kitts family who had befriended me. It wasn't an ideal arrangement because of their poverty, but I couldn't bring him back to the U.S. I had no place to stay, job, or funds to be quarantined 2-3 weeks with him in Miami. This was my first lesson in what Jon Katz calls "Good Enough" pet ownership. Virgil certainly made me a happier, more balanced PCV and I loved having him to share the adventure.
Zack, 1983-98 -- was a border collie/black lab mix that I purchased for $6.00 from a local farmer. Zack's mother, a working border collie, got knocked up by a handsome black lab from the
neighborhood so the farmer didn't want the puppies to work his cattle. Big mistake! From the beginning Zack was a frenetic, smart, challenging border collie and I was clueless as to how demanding he would be. The drama began immediately. We got evicted from a duplex because of a no pet policy, so I bought us a house--with an unfenced yard. Feeling badly about keeping him tied, I had a fence installed with my income tax refund. He re-paid me by sitting on top of the fence as the workmen pulled out of the driveway.
The herding instinct was in him from puppy hood. Visitors would have to submit to a Bitter Apple spraying and then cover themselves with a quilt to keep Zack from stripping their Achilles heel with razor sharp puppy teeth. Having no idea how much border collies need work and stimulation, I soon had a bored thief on my hands--lunch, shoes, magazines--anything. However, his greatest joy was to dive into dirty laundry and then charge out the hole in the screen door, running madly around the back yard with my Jockeys for Her unfurling out of his mouth like a white truce flag in the wind. I chased, the neighbors laughed, and Zack always won.
Zack was gorgeous with his black/white collie coat and lab body. I was proud of him and enjoyed walking him in our neighborhood. Once we were walking down the main street of our state capital when he spotted a giant road kill possum. Before I could block, he clamped onto his prize and would not drop it. I wouldn't touch the disgusting thing, he wouldn't let go, so there I was, outwitted again! Zack was terrified of thunder and lightening. He hid in the bath tub and chewed through screens and door frames and, on one occasion, the furnace duct work, almost killing me with carbon monoxide. For a time I called him Zack Kevorkian. . .
Zack was opposed to any international travel on my part. In '93 I was saving my pennies for an English horticultural tour and--in a maniac race around the yard--he tore his cruciate ligament, which required around $1,500 in orthopedic surgery to repair the damage--kiss the Chelsea Flower Show good-bye that year. In '98 I went on a tour of Ireland and Scotland, leaving my four dogs with an older sister. And, in his last "got ya", Zack died of old age and heart problems while I was away. My dear friends Sally and Dan came to the rescue. At 6 a.m. they loaded him in their car trunk and took him to Bob Evans for a farewell breakfast until the vet's office opened. Note to new pet owners: do some funeral pre-planning. I didn't, and got a call from the vet in a couple of weeks telling me to come by the office and pick up Zack's cremains. He's currently resting comfortably in a heart-shaped box in my closet. As usual, Zack got the last laugh on me. . .
Frank, 1987-'01 --was a black fluffy chow mix pup who showed up in my friend Sherry's garage on her moving day. I got the rescue call and headed out. We decided that he was a good--maybe even pedigreed--dog, so we advertised for his owners. No takers, so he came tolive with Zack and me. After his post-natal visit to the vet, I understood why there were no inquiries. He was full of worms and had an injured eye--perhaps blind. However, those eyes were blue, so I named him for Ole Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra.
Frank immediately became the alpha dog, embracing his chowness, especially around other dogs. It took a pit bull pup to overpower him in his senior years. I called him my Laughing Dog because of his habit of coming to me and staring with a grinning face when he needed anything. I sadly let him go on 9/11 after months of poor health.
Dan, 1992-'02 -- was a beautiful red-coated golden retriever and the only pedigreed dog I ever had. Dan was excess baggage from a divorce and re-marriage. I rescued him as a two years old from a life of being tied to a doghouse in the middle of a yard and being neglected by a young family trying to put its own life back together. As with everyone else, when it comes to goldens I was madly in love with Dan from the beginning. He was totally uncomplicated--a 65 lb. lump of sugar. I named him Dan after the former Vice President Dan Quayle because he, like his namesake, was very handsome but not very smart. Dan was, however, the peacemaker among the pack of four dogs. He also was a darn good baby-sitter for my last dog, the pit bull. We had a great ten years together before he died at 12 years of old age and cancer.
Willie, 1996-Present --is a black/white pit bull mix with an endearing black eye patch. He is another rescue. He and his sister Hallie were found near a Ben Franklin dumpster when only about eight weeks old. My friends took Hallie and I brought Willie home and set him up in a rabbit cage in the living room. He was a terror from an early age, dominating and fighting the older dogs. Unfortunately, I didn't know how to channel that aggression so he made our lives chaotic for several years.
With Dan's passing in '02, Willie became an only dog, which suited him well. More importantly, I became acquainted with the dog rehabilitation work of Cesar Millan of Dog Whisperer fame on the National Geographic Channel. Cesar believes that owners must be their dog's pack leader and that dogs are balanced and fulfilled only when they receive exercise, discipline, and affection--in that order. Luckily, I'm retired so I have the time to provide this formula for Willie. Every day starts with a long, focused walk where he is expected to be a good ambassador for pit bulls, a much maligned breed. People regularly stop me in public to compliment his good behavior. I reward him with lavish attention and affection. He is a great retirement partner.
Some people speak of a Forever Dog--the one that you love above all others. For me, my Magnificent Five are all Forever Dogs, each in his own way enriched my life and taught me how to be a better person, I hope.
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