Note to Readers: This is a long post so you might want to find a time when you can sit and have a cup of tea or a glass of wine, to read it at your leisure. And maybe even have a few moments to reflect on some of your old friends, human or otherwise. I believe you can tell how good a friend is or was by how clear their memory is for you at any given time. If that memory is crystal clear and as sharp as a ginzu then that is a very old friend and one to be cherished for as long as you’re able. This is a tale of my old friend. Yours may vary.
I was thinking about old friends lately. I was thinking about how few of them a person really has. And how hard it is to replace them when they’re gone. I’m not talking about new friends or acquaintances, as much as you enjoy their friendship and companionship, I’m talking about those friends that you’ve had for more years than you care to put a number on. The ones you may not have spoken to in weeks or months or even in some cases years but when you do it’s like “Hey, What are you doing? ” and the conversation is off and running like you had spoken to them earlier this morning. How it feels good just to hear their voice. I think if the truth were known not many of us have very many friends like that.
Sometimes, or many times as the case may be, that old friend isn’t even human. I had one like that. In fact I still do, he’s just not with us any more. His name was Bill and when I first met him he was about the size of a toaster. He was half Aussie, half Golden Retriever and half human. He looked like a golden retriever but had the blue eyes and coloring of an Aussie. That is, a bright blue-gray coat with black spots. He looked like Dr. Seuss designed him. I got him from some people I had met who had gotten rid of all the puppies in the litter but Bill, who was returned to them by his new owners because he ate too much. I know, how could a little puppy, even a big little puppy, eat too much.
From the beginning Bill was my dog. Other people could feed him, rub him between his ears, play with him, he’d even lick their face occasionally, but when everything was said and done he was mine. We were bonded and it was for life. Anyone who has ever experienced this bond, attachment, love, call it what you will, knows exactly what I’m talking about. Those of you who haven’t I hope that someday you will.
For all the years I had him, unless I was physically gone, I was never out of his sight. He would lie so that I could be seen and if I got up to go to another room it wouldn’t be long until I’d hear him quietly get up and move so he could see me again.
There were several things Bill loved beyond price, or even dog food. One would be to go along and ride with me in the truck. It didn’t matter if I only backed down the driveway and up again he had to be along. In fact sometimes I would do that if we hadn’t been somewhere in a while. He seemed to need it. I had an old blue dodge pickup I called the Enola Gay and it belonged more to Bill than it did me. If I didn’t leave the door open so he could get in and sit he would lie moaning next to it until I couldn’t stand it anymore and go open it for him.
One day I had gone into town to pick something up and Bill was with me. All the windows were down as it was hot and the Enola Gay didn’t have air conditioning. I had to nip in and get my stuff. So Bill had to stay there in the truck. This was before the days when it was a felony to leave an animal in the car alone. I was gone a few minutes and when I got back there was a very irate woman standing there berating me for leaving Bill in that hot truck. I listened to her tirade for a while then opened the door and told her to try and get him out. It was the only time I ever saw Bill growl at anybody.
The Enola Gay was Bill’s second home. He rode in the front seat and it was his spot. When someone else was sitting there he was incensed. In fact sulky would be a better word. It was the first time I learned that dogs could be passive aggressive. There would be many a nasty glance thrown at the interloper and Bill would position himself in the backseat so his head was just over the passenger’s shoulder and drool. He never drooled otherwise. Sit in his place and you were going to pay the price.
Bill was a very intelligent dog, but like all intelligent beings he had his flaws. As much as he loved riding in the Enola Gay he never quite got the hang of the whole balancing thing, like when to lean and which direction to do it in as we would go around a corner. He’d always lean the wrong way and lose his balance and tip over and fall on the floor and have to scramble up on the seat again. After this happened he would steadily look out the side window as if he had meant to do that all along. He could affect an air of damaged dignity that was amazing to behold.
The other thing would be, he’d smack his nose on the dashboard whenever I’d have to make a quick stop and given the way I drive, that was fairly often. He would hold me directly responsible after that happened. I would get the look first, then the silent treatment, and if I’d try and make it up to him by patting him he’d shrug it off like “Don’t touch me. You’re a stupid driver.”
We finally worked through the whole riding in the truck thing, by my teaching him how to lean in the corners so he didn’t make a fool of himself. It was pretty simple after I figured it out. All I had to do was reach over and put my hand on his side of the direction we were turning and he’d lean into it, So if we were going to make a right hand turn I’d put my hand onto his right side as we were turning into the corner and he’d lean into it and we’d make it through the corner without him falling all over and looking dumb. The moment he got that and saw how it worked he was insufferable. It was all “Hey turn the corner! ” ” Come on, Do it again.” and “Look at me. I can survive your driving.” and “Yeah, I’m cool.”
The other thing with the nose smacking was even easier to fix once we got into this training thing. He seemed to know when we were in a training situation and figured stuff out quicker each time. A simple pushing down on his head while yelling “Down!” as I panic stopped and soon whenever he felt the brakes go on he’d crouch down with head between his paws like someone was going to hit him with a baseball bat and when I started going again he get up and rather disdainfully look at me, as if to say “Where the hell did you learn to drive” The “dumbass” was understood.
Bill seemed to love words. He had an amazing vocabulary. He could distinguish between words like “Ball” and “Bowl”. If you asked him to get one or the other he would always bring you the one you asked for. Except if he didn’t understand you. Once I had a cold or something and in a gravelly muffled tone said “Bill, Go get your bowl.” and he brought back his ball. I said “No not your ball, your bowl.” and still not quite getting it he went over to where his bowl was, set his ball down, looked at me as if he were considering what my problem was, picked up his ball again, put it in the bowl bringing both back to me. He got an extra portion of dog gruel for that one.
We were living in and old Victorian at the time and went to a lot of home shows and garden shows and stuff like that. If you’ve been to those you know you acquire a lot of brochures and things to bring home and immediately throw out. You could have thrown it out as you left the building but apparently it’s important you bring that stuff home to throw out. But while you’re there you need something to carry all of that crap in. There was always somebody giving out bags but you had to trade your name, address and phone number to get one. So I’d always sign us up as Bill DeDog. It wasn’t long before the calls started coming in. “Can we speak to Mr. DeDog please?” “Sorry he can’t talk to you right now.” “Well can we call back at a more convenient time” “Sure, anytime”. “That was for you” I’d tell him. It always seemed to please him.
What he really liked though was the mailman, or more specifically, mail time. Our mail was delivered to the door then, so the bell would ring and Bill and I would race to the door for the mail. Normally we’d get a stack of mail that would choke a horse and I’d stand there and sort through it, giving Bill the pieces that were addressed to him. This was always a very serious time. I’d show it to him and point out where it was addressed to him and he’d patiently wait until I finally gave it to him. You don’t screw around with the mail, this was a big deal for him. I’d take a piece and say “this one’s for you.” and he’d carefully take it in his mouth and carry it back to his bed and put it on the pile that was his mail. If there was a big heavy flyer he’d sometimes carry it around for a long time. He’d rarely get it soggy even if he held it until he’d thoroughly crushed it in two.
Bill left me in the spring of the year. We were just beginning to build our dream home in the mountains and I was looking forward to having Bill on the jobsite as the resident “Jobsite Dog”, a title I knew he would love to have. He was so vain. Having the acreage to run around on wouldn’t hurt either. But it wasn’t to be. Bill had a tumor and it wasn’t long before the trips to the vet got closer together and lasted longer and longer, and then came a moment when the worst decision I ever had to make was made. And that was that.
I buried Bill up at the house on the side of the hill where he could look out at the plains and be close. It was at the foot of a big rock formation that we named Picnic Rock. That was where we’d go and plan how the house was going to be, have a picnic, and Bill would join me afterwards on the rocks while I smoked a cigar and he watched the birds fly by. Today nearly twenty years after he’s gone, his bowl, the same one he brought his ball to me in, is still sitting on the cairn over his grave. I go there every so often, not so much any more, because for some reason it’s still so hard to think about him, or more clearly, his loss. Maybe that’s just a function of old age but my old friend is still very close to me. I knew someone once who said to me that there should be a law where your pets had to live as long as you did. I would like to see that one passed.
Bill and his person. Picnic Rock circa 1994