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Teaching Us How the World Wags On

Teaching Us How the World Wags On

Teaching Us How the World Wags On

No small part of dogs’ value to humankind is the way they effortlessly channel the wondrous nature of reality itself. I’ve recently been thinking about two dogs from my youth, and was suddenly struck by the book-ended lessons they taught me about life and death, and the way our world wags on.

Let me start with Boots, a mostly Boston Terrier (significantly longer of leg and snout than a purebred) whom we acquired when I was five years old. Children get to know dogs in myriad ways that are not accessible to older people, who are rarely so willing to commune with their dog on more or less equal terms. While adults will often share table scraps with their dog, only kids ever dip into the pooch’s bowl just to see what that stuff tastes like. And though a child’s attention span may be shorter than an adult’s, he shares a dog’s appetite for simple games of endless reiteration that involve the fetching of sticks or balls—all the better if a field of mud or a body of water is involved. On those days when siblings and peers made themselves scarce, I wasn’t deprived of stimulating company if I headed out with Boots for an afternoon of mooching around woodlots and creeks or houses that were under construction.

Most often when I remember Boots I recall her companionable warmth, lying in sleepy sentry on my bed as she escorted me into the land of nod or the routine we got into on days when I’d scored a new comic and I would stretch out in a patch of sunlight on the floor to read while employing her as my pillow; occasionally getting distracted from whatever drama was unfolding on the page by the squeegly sound of tubular traffic that was circulating in her tummy.

Teaching Us How the World Wags On
Boots, photographed by David Goodden in April, 1960, confronts an adversary. 

Boots bought the farm in the early morning of January 7th, 1964; in that desolating temporal hollow between the assassination of JFK and the first appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Thanks to the wealth of information now available on the interwebs, I can authoritatively state that this was a Tuesday and can also speculate that perhaps her soul migrated into the person of Nicolas Cage, who drew his very first breath on that same dark day.

She’d accompanied my brother Ted on the first half of his early morning paper route, and then turned back to make her own way home as she’d done countless times before. No one noticed that she hadn’t returned until we were all sitting down to breakfast; any appetite for which evaporated on the spot. We’d moved into a new house in November and rather desperately hoped that maybe she’d become confused and gone back to our old place about six blocks away; just across the street from the public school where I was in grade six.

Dad packed my three older brothers and me into the car and we set out on what would ideally be a two-fold mission; to find our wandering dog and deliver us to our schools. We had just emerged through the gates of our spiffy new suburb and turned west onto the main connector road when my dad spoke three words of what could have been very good news—“There she is”— in the saddest voice imaginable. Whoever had run her over at least had the decency to scoop her up and set her on top of the high snowbank that lined the south side of the street.

When we got back home, I ran around to our back door in tears while Dad and my brothers carried Boots through to the garage and set her in the wheelbarrow until we figured out how we’d bury her in our frozen, snow-covered yard. In my utter misery, I had instinctively run toward the comfort that my mother could most reliably provide. But when she met me at the door with a look of horrible expectation on her face, I wished I was in the garage with the menfolk. In that instant I knew that not only would she not be able to help me one bit with this grief; I was the one who would definitively push her into it as well and I couldn’t bear to do that. “What happened?” she asked though she knew perfectly well—in the main if not the details—and I turned away from her and continued crying alone.

Nobody went to school that day, and Dad didn’t head into work until the afternoon. We sat around talking and intermittently crying (particularly me and Mom) through most of the morning. I was 11 years old when Boots died, and though approaching the age of reason, was not yet immune to the lure of magical thinking. I headed out to the garage in the mid-afternoon just to see Boots again and try to come to terms with what had happened. On my way out, I had a silent dialogue with God or the ruling spirit of the world and proposed a sort of compact. “Look, I know it’s really unlikely, but if I get out there and she should somehow turn out to be alive after all, I will not only accept this with great happiness, I won’t even question how it could be. And for the rest of my life going forward, I promise that I will never demand that things should turn out to be the way that I actually know they are.”

Well, not too surprisingly even for me, no higher power took me up on the offer. This rejection was stamped with a white fleck at the very base of the nail on my right baby finger, which I suddenly recognized and cherished for what it was. About a week before Boots died, we’d been playing some stupid game where I was grabbing a stick of kindling out of her mouth and Boots inadvertently nipped me. Over the next six or nine months, I communed with that mark of mild physical trauma, that final trace of my dog, as it grew out to the uppermost tip of my nail and then flew away in a paring.

And then there was Myrtle, classified as a “Terrier X” by the vet when she got her first shots. Myrtle was the dog of my young manhood; acquired within two weeks of moving out of my parents’ house and was at my side over the next 16 and a half years. She posed with me in the photo for the “About the Author” page of my first published novel, shifted over in my bed when I got married, and also learned to share her home with all three of our children, whose memories of her aren’t quite so warm as my own. Indeed, they think of her—when they think of her at all—as that “crabby bitch" who was never as much fun as dogs are supposed to be. They bonded far more with the dogs we got later.

Teaching Us How the World Wags On
Herman Goodden and Myrtle, in a photograph by Douglas Cassan that appeared on the cover of the author's 1975 novel

Well, too bad for them. Bad timing, I’d call it. Myrtle was tops as far as I’m concerned. And as the first being who ever relied on me for their well-being, she taught me a lot about parenting and responsibility and loyalty.

And the main reason that I want to talk about Myrtle here is what happened when she was about eight years old. My wife was pregnant with our first child, and we’d gone over to an old friend’s house for dinner and taken her along with us. There was a bunch of stuff we had to unload from our car before supper and we’d made a couple of trips across this not-very-busy street to do that. Then, angry with myself for not being more mindful, I saw a car suddenly approaching from the south and there was me on one side of the road and Myrtle on the other. I held up two splayed hands and told her to “Stay” in the most non-inviting voice I could muster. But the poor goof bolted across at the worst possible moment and disappeared under the grille of the car, tumbling over and over and yelping in pain and then falling quiet and still. Well, I’d been through this before, and knew she was dead and that no cosmic appeals made to any higher entity could change a blessed thing.

The car that had run her over pulled off to the curb and a man got out and came over to tell me how sorry he was; how he just didn’t see her until it was too late. I started to tell him that I knew it wasn’t his fault when together we watched this little black corpse in the middle of the street scramble up onto her feet and then—erratically but very energetically—dart over to an adjacent lawn, where I caught up to her and was able to calm her down and gingerly check her out.

I couldn’t believe it, but then I gratefully did. She was rattled and ditzy but nothing was broken. There might have been a scrape or two—I honestly don’t recall—but otherwise she was fine and good to go. We wouldn’t even have to take her to the vet. And so we cheerily said our goodbyes to one very relieved driver and headed into my friend’s house for supper.

Go figure. Myrtle had somehow broken all the laws of reality, yet nobody had to make a Faustian bargain with the Lord of the Universe to acquire such an impossible stroke of divine intervention. What a good dog.