Somehow, tonight, looking down at a pair of beautiful and handsome loving brown eyes that are looking back at me, I remembered my first love affair.
It was the summer of 1957 and we were driving back to north Jersey after visiting my Mom’s kin in Iowa. My Dad drove the Olds family station wagon into a small town just off of I-70 east of Zanesville, Ohio.
Just down the road from the motel, there was a small sign for a dog kennel and sale. The ubiquitous pony request having been firmly 86’d by the master of the house, my kid sister and I had set upon wanting a puppy.
We walked up and down the chicken coop cages until we came upon a mixed breed mutt that looked to be a cross between a Collie and a chocolate Lab. The owner said he estimated him to somewhere around 2-3 years old and would let him go for $15.
He was gangly, undernourished, rib bones protruding but had a joyful countenance, tail wagging with a large grin that paused momentarily to lick my face, as if to say, “Please, get me outta here.” The two-tone wail of my sister and me must’ve been too much for my old man, who eventually relented, putting “Spike” into the back of the Olds with Lorna and I.
I was considered a troubled child by school shrinks and authority figures, prone to fights, under achieving scholastically, eventually getting into college largely on all state soccer prowess. Through all of the tongue lashings, butt whippings, south bound grades and first rocky voyages into affairs of the heart, Spike remained my best friend, teaching me more about life, loyalty and love than all of the rest.
I look down at my sidekick Jake again tonight, thinking of Spike and the words of a song come to mind as they often do when writing this column. Testament to a man’s love of his dog, I can hear Pirates of the Mississippi singing their song “Feed Jake,” the words painting different pictures, while somehow going to a least common denominator in the eyes looking back at me and the miles across the years:
I’m standin’ at the crossroads in life
And I don’t know where to go
You know you’ve got my heart, babe
But my music’s got my soul
Let me play it one more time
Tell the truth and make it right
And hope they understand me.
Several years later, in 1970, I got the call in my Kentucky dorm room from Mom that Spike was dying and had a few days left. The following morning, I went to a stone cutter in Lexington and had a headstone cut for him, simply engraved, “Spike, Beloved Friend, 1955-1970.”
I can still recall driving all night back to Jersey with that stone in tow, wiping the tears away through half of Pennsylvania-getting home to find that a massive injection of steroids had gotten him past his death spiral, while buying him another eight months. That stone that he cheated on the date, I’m told still lies there behind an old brown house, weeds pulled out of respect by some unknown hand.
Now looking down at Jake, the tune returns:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I die before I wake, feed Jake
He’s been a good dog
My best friend, right through it all
If I die before I wake, feed Jake.
Broken hearts and bad drunks, you swear you’re never going back there. Until...decades later, a century passed, the odometer busting double six figures and you’ve been up and down more than any standing eight count should allow, without your corner throwing in the towel, you find yourself blessed with a job doing social work for the Yurok Tribe. As close to God’s work as it gets, laboring, after all the other systems have failed, to try and put the pieces back in the battered, abused, damaged, downtrodden and fallen.
Now Broadway’s like a sewer
Bums and hookers everywhere
Winos passed out on the sidewalk
Doesn’t anybody care?
Some say ‘He’s worthless, just let him be!’
I for one would have to disagree
And so would their Mamas
It’s a beautiful Fall afternoon and I’m returning from the Hoopa reservation. Driving the 40-mile stretch of Bald Hills Road, the switchbacks so sharp you swear you could meet yourself on some of ‘em, it’d had been an exhausting day, encountering a young man who’d tried to stab me in the face with some sharpened elk horns. Burdened with a disease that had once afflicted me, just another fellow addict who had made his latest balloon payment on hell, I understood where he was coming from.
Weary from the encounter’s sadness, I look up ahead on this lonely, barren stretch of wilderness road to see a brand spankin’ new black Escalade with Arizona plates pulled over on the side of the now dirt road. Given the possibilities of that equation, you have the feeling it adds up to one of three things — equaling white, brown or green.
As I pass the vehicle, a hand goes up and you slow to inquire if help’s needed. I back up slowly to see two middle aged guys with wraparound shades, skinheads and at least one very prominent shamrock prison gang tattoo, all adding up to the realization that what I’m packing has to be significantly less efficacious than what these fellows are.
Upon inquiry, I’m told that they’re there to meet someone about purchasing some of that land. Knowing neither God nor the Creator can buy that land, I bid them a good day pretty quick, but not before the guy riding shotgun tells me to look out for a dead dog around one of the sharp corners a couple miles down the road.
Sure enough, three miles down the road and around a 160 degree bend, there’s a dog lying smack in the middle of the road. He looks to be a mix between a healer, pit, maybe some terrier thrown in. His bones are the only thing holding up his skin, along with a host of ticks the size of dimes.
There’s a four-foot stretch of rope around his neck that’s frayed at the other end where he probably broke off, most likely a guard dog on a dope grow. People starve ‘em to make them mean and alert.
Just when I begin to drive around him, I see his chest expanding ever so slightly. Knowing I can’t just drive off and leave him, I open my government ride door, crouch behind it while looking around to see if it might be a set-up. Strange things have been known to happen out on Bald Hills Road where there’s no reception, no black and whites, just your wits and whatever you’re packing.
Nothing in sight, I slowly walk up to the poor little fella whose chest is working real shallow, any one maybe being his last. You know you’re not supposed to have animals in the government vehicles. You know he’s probably dying. You know he’s probably going to leave a mess if he punches out during the 90-minute drive you still have left. You know you won’t be able to just toss him on the side of the road when it happens.
Yeah, you know a lot of stuff but all you can see is a brown and white mutt on his last legs 45 years ago, as well as something that you like to think lives in all of us, that binds us together and lets us believe that it’s a blessing to be able to give someone or thing a second chance. Especially when you’ve been on the receiving end more than a time or two.
So, I take out my foul weather jacket and put it over him, placing the hood over his face and head and pick him up. Halfway back to the SUV, the hood flops down and his head kicks up and you know you’re gonna get bit, only to have him lick your face.
I get back to town and he’s still alive, so I bed him down for the night in the garage. Next morning, he’s still hovering. I take him to Four Paws Animal Hospital where he gets hydrated, neutered, rabies shots administered, IV fed, 40 or 50 ticks removed and completely curled under nails clipped. All of this done with an eye to having the Humane Society or Dog Pound take him and adopt him out.
That was a Friday afternoon when I got him back, so I was stuck with him all weekend. That was two years ago. I got engaged since, and son-of-a-gun, if he doesn’t fight Connie for that side of the bed every night.
And I guess the point I’m circuitously getting around to is how these beasts that Thomas More said were created to show us innocence somehow find a way to bring out the good in us, no matter how deeply buried sometimes. Shortly thereafter, I named him “Jake,” it just felt right, wasn’t after any other mutt or person I know of. And then one day last year, my cross-pasture neighbor, Lori, asked if I’d named him after “the song.” I told her “no,” but checked it out, which led to this piece being fondly wrapped around.
Now if you get an ear pierced
Some will call you gay
But if you drive a pick-up
They’ll say ‘No, you must be straight!’
What we are and what we ain’t
What we can and what we can’t
Does it really matter?
All of which found me driving up to our county dog pound late this afternoon. There I met the new boss Justin Riggs, while reacquainting myself with old friend and Office Manager Lynne Marshall. While there, Animal Control Officer Dave Cavyell came in to respond to an ongoing abuse case. We reminisced about old cases we’d taken to trial, back when that was assiduously being done.
I walked the premises, stopping to look at all the 20 dogs in these committed people’s great care, generously supported by Parkway Feed’s provision of feed “at cost.” Speaking with Justin, I was told that for 98.5 percent of this past year, the pound was over capacity. Encouragingly, this past winter, they had initiated ‘human patrols,” identifying animals with no shelters and educating those owners with the necessities to keep their pets safe.
As I was about to leave, turning another corner in the back of the pound grounds, I ran into David and Dorie Bruce, who I learned had been coming there every week for three years to walk and exercise the dogs there. Not a surprise to anyone that knows the great hearts of these two devoted and compassionate individuals, I watched as Dorie played fetch with“Winchester,” a handsome and engaging Pit/Mastiff/Basset mix.
Dorie related to me how badly they’re in need of volunteers, that you don’t need to come and do the scut work, but just spending some time “hanging with these loveable guys.” Watching the relationship between “Winnie” and his human pal, Dorie, it was easy to see how the dividends went both ways.
This afternoon, I saw Spike and this cur named Jake, now curled up with Connie on a couple yards of mattress I’m gonna have to fight for in a moment or two. They had a/k/a’s of Winchester and Bullett, Jane and Liberty and 16 more. I also saw David and Dorie, Lynne, Dave, and Justin, as well as Shane and Sergio. And it was hard to escape the thread of the Pirate’s song about a dog named Jake, about how we’re all connected, how we all need each other and how incredibly blessed we are when we just reach out.
And yeah, Jake, I’ll be there all through night and in the morning to feed you. As do you me.
Jon Alexander lives in Ft. Dick and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Angels and Desperados appears on the first and third Saturday of each month.