“Their single-minded devotion teaches us very clearly about unconditional love.” — Unknown
Behind the house where I grew up, in my mind, our small backyard stretched to the horizon; a distance such that you could ride a horse into the ground before catching an hombre on the run. Back then, jumping from the back-porch steps and into the yard transported me from the age of seven/eight into a world of fantasy.
My first death was there, but not before I ‘kilt’ some of the meanest, low-down scoundrels in the West. Always, though, my sidekick Jeep, a Heinz special, black haired and medium built, stood by me. He knew though, there were times he would have to scamper for his life…depending on my supply of rubber-tipped arrows or plunger-tipped darts, because in that world of childhood fantasy, he was deemed anything from a wild boar to a diseased wolf.
My second dog, Taxi, endured every minute of my pain as a plains-drifting cowboy. Once, outlaws burst into my campsite, robbed and beat me, and then dragged me behind a horse by my feet along rutted forest paths, through rocky creek-beds, and burning coals. Through it all, Taxi, a black and white mutt born out of wedlock, licked my wounds and never left my side.
An old dilapidated shack at the end of the yard doubled as an oft-robbed bank, a fort surrounded by Indians, or a cabin on fire where distressed damsels awaited rescue. Silver, another dog of mixed ancestry, often played the part of the bad guy, the demon, or the bank robber on-the-run.
Death in the backyard was not only inevitable but it was dramatic. Being struck by imaginary bullets or arrows, I fell dead in rusted fencing, in piles of rain-soaked leaves, or draped across low-hanging limbs of an oft-climbed Maple tree.
Always, my dogs Jeep, Taxi, or Silver remained in the midst of my make-believe world. They were my fantasy friends come to life.
Today, I can still smell the pungent odor of the exploding caps that came through the barrel of my cap-gun. I can still taste the remnants of the powder that I sucked into my mouth and lungs. And I remember blowing that gray-colored smoke back into the air as if I were the toughest cowboy this side of Death Valley.
None of that, however, came to life without one of my dogs at my side. Each patiently listened as I planned every adventure, they jumped from the back-porch steps and into that fantasy world with the same excitement as I, and at the end of each day, I would sit on those same steps with one of my dogs snuggled at my side. I never considered that they didn’t understand me, or that they could not speak…in fact it was quite the opposite.
And then there was Chad. A dog of assorted ancestry with a coat that was a mixture of brown found in a freshly fallen acorn or the inner coat of a Grizzly cub.
In junior high school I attended summer Boy Scout entrapment at Camp Arrowhead where my scout master learned that I could not swim. And, reasoning that I might be the only member of BSA who did not know how, threw me into the deep end of the pool. As I flailed for my life, no one came to my rescue but my dog, Chad. Thankfully, I had been given permission for him to come with me to camp.
Will someone please explain this to me? My dog, untrained in the art of protecting the life of his master, even at the risk of death, belly busted into the pool fully intent on keeping me afloat. I know about wolves, from whence dogs descend. I know what the pack is willing to do for its leader, even unto death. True, my family became Chad’s pack the day we picked him up at the pound. But, knowing I was in peril, how did figure he needed to do something about it? Tell me, dear reader, is there any other animal wired like a dog?
I didn’t know, back then, that most of my future failures and accomplishments would end the very same as when I was a child…with one of my faithful and trusted canine companions at my side.
In high school, I passed the tests for a driver’s license. Let me tell you, I thought I was Mr. Cool behind the wheel. That is until the day mom asked me to take Chad to the vet. Anxious to drive, I loaded him into the car and then grabbed his collar and leash from the garage. When I came back to the car, just as I reached to open the door, Chad jumped on the automatic door lock. We just looked at each other. He on the inside. Me on the outside. I swear he knew where we were going and locked me out of the car on purpose. Okay, okay…I know you think I’m looney. But consider this, if he belly-flopped into the deep end of the swimming pool to save my life…could he not also have figured he didn’t want to be taken to the vet?
Surely, you’ve experienced something similar with your dog. Tell me about it.
Thanks for reading,
John Preston Smith is the author of nine novels, all are listed at jprestonsmith.com. Questions or comments can be sent to him at facebook.com/johnprestonsmith. Proceeds support Hoops Family Children’s Hospital in Huntington, W.Va.