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“Fleas on Board” is an excerpt from the book “Coming of Age in California” by Gerald Haslam (Walnut Creek, CA: Devil Mountain Books, 2000 [second edition]).
A San Francisco Chronicle readers’ poll in 2000 named the book one of the 100 most important non-fiction books of the 20th century from the West.
Gerald kindly sent me the below story, that I couldn’t resist publishing here. Feel free to leave your comments below. It’s a heartwarming story …
Fleas on Board
I would not see my father weep again for nearly 50 years, so that day in 1941 when tears streamed down his face remains vivid. Mitzi, a deaf Boston Bull Terrier whom he adored, had died, but I just couldn’t understand how my father could cry; he was, after all, a grown-up…a daddy.
Mitzi had been Pop’s buddy, trained to do tricks when he gestured, yet untrained enough to sprint in circles and explode like a white bottle rocket when he returned from work each day. He would snuggle her, roughhouse a bit, talk to her in tones I rarely heard. Mom loved her, too, even allowing Mitzi to nap on the living-room couch, and I played with her daily. Then suddenly she was gone from our lives.
We would have other dogs as I grew up…most memorably Suki, a red Cocker Spaniel who was my companion from early in my grade-school years until she died while I was overseas in the Army. But my father never again bonded that deeply with a pet.
As I write this I’m 62-years-old and my own special pal, Rook, a small black Labrador Retriever whose snout and feet have long since turned white, my hiking and retrieving buddy for nearly 15 years, lies dying on her bed. Her brown eyes watch me, and when I rise she tries to join me, but her body no long works. A look merging bafflement and sadness crossed that expressive face, and I pet her, comfort her, croon to her, then she settles.
Rookers, as we often called her, has always loved and been loved by the entire family, but I have been her focus, so this time it is I who am fighting tears. In fact, two and a half wonderful pooches have livened our family’s life. The half doesn’t indicate a truncated pooch, but a truncated relationship: One joined us when she was eight years old and remained part of our family until her death nearly a decade later. The others joined us as puppies, and lived their entire lives–each roughly fifteen years–as part of our gang…the best part in many ways… behavior, loyalty, temperament. Principally, though, they taught us by offering uncritical love…even when it wasn’t much deserved.
Cloudy, our hippie dog, was the first of those three pals. On a morning in the late 1960s, a pair of friendly flower children were sitting on the sidewalk next to a cardboard box of squirming puppies in front of the now-defunct Marin Co-Op. Our children put on the brakes and explained that cats were girls and dogs were boys, and we needed a boy. We had just obtained a kitten–labeled “Sunshine” by the kids–so Jan and I said “Why not?” How could we have argued with that logic?
I’m sure glad we didn’t, because Cloudy was a perfect fit, like us a mongrel–surely part Airedale, part Shepherd, probably part Briard and, who knows, maybe part Chinese or Spanish or Irish, too. Given his appearance, anything was possible. A neighbor, after viewing Cloud’s vigorously shaggy exterior, once asked, “Exactly what breed is that dog?”
“You name it,” I replied, “and he’s probably kin to it.”
Whatever his various ingredients, they were strong: as a youngster, he once dashed into the street and was hit by a car. Cloudy leapt up and he sprinted home, then collapsed of shock. The veterinarian later said, “That’s one tough dog. I think the car suffered more damage than he did.” He was up and about the next day, limping a bit, and we never had to warn him away from the street again; he was a smart guy.
At slightly under 100 lbs., he was also the neighborhood’s alpha male, a force indeed, but remarkably tolerant with our kids. They dressed him, rode him, wrestled him, fed him vegetables they didn’t want to eat, and on occasion caused him to yelp in pain, yet he never so much as growled at one of them, or so they have told us. He was a gem, who basically trained himself.
Our older two–six and seven at the time–used him to play a variation of chicken: they would lie on the floor and allow Cloudy to lick faces until one or the other gave in and covered their mug; we always wondered why their faces were clean while the rest of them wasn’t. About that time, those yellow “Baby on Board” signs were in vogue, and one or another of our tadpoles drew a crude imitation for Cloudy; it said “Fleas on Board,” and it was accurate.
If other dogs came on board, though, Cloud’ was aggressive and decisive and he retired undefeated, as far as I know, when a stroke finally felled him at 15. No, that’s not correct: although apparently unafraid of bears, he nevertheless met his match up at Tuolumne Meadows one summer when a carpenter ant latched onto his nose; for a change we rescued him. Anyway, we buried our old buddy under a small volunteer oak in our side yard; the next year it tripled its size, as though his powerful genes had taken asserted themselves.
During the years of Cloudy’s ascendancy, various of our kids worked as weekend kennel cleaners at Brandner’s Veterinary Hospital in Petaluma. There they met Queenie, a Collie-Husky mix who had been rescued from the local dog pound to serve as the clinic’s blood donor. Shortly after Cloud’s death, the kids launched a free-Queenie campaign. We knew and like her, so Jan and I agreed to invite her into our family…except that the vet’ and his staff were attached to the sweet-tempered pooch, so they resisted. After negotiations, including a promise that she’d return for regular social visits, we were granted custody, and we understood that we were in a sense on probation as far as the clinic’s employees were concerned.
Queenie had lived there for nearly seven years and would live nearly another ten years with us–a long time for a large dog, but she was so mellow that her engine didn’t burn out early. She was also a genuine beauty, who sashayed her hips when she strolled, and who seemed to smile much of the time. She loved to walk, but running wasn’t in her repertoire. She also savored attention and received plenty. When we later brought a black bundle named Rook home, barely old enough to be weaned, it took only a few whimpers and nuzzles from the puppy to ignite the Queen’s maternal instinct. That night they curled up together, Rook sleeping on Queenie’s generous tail, and they would continue to sleep like that until Queenie died.
Rookers was a small, swift Lab’ at 65 pounds, and an acrobat…frisbee aerialist and tennis-ball demon; I was continually astounded by her ability to change position mid-air when drafts changed a frisbee’s direction. She also had both the intelligence and temperament to become a kind of sixth child in a family she entered just as the five kids were growing up and moving away. She wasn’t a barker–if we ever heard her voice we knew something serious was up–but she did communicate well indeed with eyes, body, tail.
In 1987, we relocated to new house in rural Penngrove, and our neighbor there owned an aggressive male Sharpei that was rarely leashed. One day he trotted onto our yard and, without any visible provocation, attacked the aging Queenie. That was a mistake. Rook, whom we had never seen even hint at fighting, tore into him so vigorously that the Chinese fighting dog sprinted home bloody. We were stunned; it was a side of her we’d never even imagined.
Eleven years later, when she was crippled with arthritis, our dog was attacked by a pit bull-mix and a Ridgeback while I was walking her. Rook instinctively dropped flat, protecting her throat and belly. My initial (not-too-smart) response was to start punching. A few moments into the battle, I realized how futile my actions were, so I grabbed the pit’s collar and began choking it, lifting it from the ground–that attacker immediately lost interest in Rook. Meanwhile I kicked at the Ridgeback until the gasping pit escaped, then I managed to choke the Ridgeback, but the pit recovered and once more assaulted my dog.
Fortunately, a neighbor heard the ruckus and sprinted to my aid and the attack was finally aborted. Rook suffered only puncture wounds in the loose skin of her neck, but there was no doubt in my mind that the two attackers would have killed her had they been able. And I’d have killed them.
A year or so later, she began stiffening and limping when we walked. Arthritis medication helped, and a tossed tennis ball or a flung frisbee would still elicit a chase, albeit in slow motion. Like most Lab’s, she was a wonderful athlete, so when she began stumbling over curbs, tripping over seemingly invisible impediments, I knew problems were deepening. Soon Jan or I was lifting her so she could stand, then carrying her down the deck steps so she could relieve herself. During that decline, she never ceased to wag her tail, to communicate with those eyes, to enjoy being in the midst of the family. Her bed was in the family room, where she became the center of attention, a beloved elder.
A couple of weeks ago, Jan and I traveled to Oregon; when we returned, Rookers’ head came up and she weakly wagged that ebony tail. Seeing her in such a diminished condition swooped our hearts. We both snuggled her, then I attached the leash to her harness and gently helped her to her feet. She managed to stand, and we wobbled down part of our old route–the last walk we would ever take together. I couldn’t help recalling that only a couple of years before I had been the wobbly one. Rehabilitating from surgery and radiation, I had begun by simply (and quite slowly) strolling with her up and down the block, then farther and farther, miles and miles over the countryside–old black dog and old white man.
But as age and infirmities gripped her, I couldn’t do anything help, and that fact ground into me. Our veterinarian discussed “putting her down” with me, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that either–it would be like euthanising one of my children. We brought an I.V. unit home and hydrated her that way; we hand-fed her; we carried her into the yard to potty. Always, those eyes and that tail let us know she was with us. But when she could no longer eat or even raise her head, I put my own distress away and arranged to take her to the clinic to do what I so dreaded. As always those trusting eyes were on me as I sadly petted her good night and turned in.
I awoke after one of my worst nights, a knot in my belly, only to learn that Rook had done me one last favor: she lay motionless on her bed, her chestnut eyes open but no longer able to following me, and I was gulfed by grief. Should I have had her put down two weeks previously? Probably, but I didn’t…I couldn’t. Our house and our hearts suddenly felt so much emptier, but we know we did our flawed best for her; that’s all we could do.
We feel incomplete now because we felt so complete when she shared our lives. Rook loved us without reservation, even when reservation would have been appropriate; fortunately, Jan and I had matured enough to love her back the same way. Rookers and our other dogs have taught us many other lessons…the acceptance of death’s inevitability, for instance, as well as the healing power of gratitude for having known them.
They have also allowed me to understand why, all those years ago, I saw my tough father weep.
Gerald Haslam’s website, www.geraldhaslam.com, lists sources to purchase all his books.