I guess it's dog week or something here at Beta Dad. While griping about my current dog, I sometimes think of other dogs I have had in the past, maybe to remind myself that you have to take the bad with the good when you choose to have these adorable beasts in your life. So here's my random shaggy dog story for Random Tuesday Thoughts, sponsored, as always, by Keely the Un Mom (and secret Canadian.)
I got Mac when I was fourteen years old, in 1982. We had moved to the outer suburbs of Washington D.C., and the promise of a puppy was meant to assuage any misgivings I had about moving away from my friends on the other side of the county. I had had one dog before, when we lived in a ninth floor apartment in Moscow, but that had not gone very well--we had to leave the little maniac with a nice Russian guy out in the country when we moved back to the States.
So we got Mac--an Old English Sheepdog--from a backyard breeder, based on a whim shared between my dad and me: something like, Let's get one of those big old shaggy dogs that look like they don't have any eyes.
Mac lived to the ripe (and by "ripe" I mean "smelling like death and decay") old age of fourteen. He was a good boy, and he never complained about the considerable discomfort he had to experience during much of his life. He was nothing if not stoic. By the time I finally decided to put him down, he had been struck by lightning (we're pretty sure), had kidney failure, a stroke, got stuck in quicksand, drunk poisonous pool chemicals; and was mostly deaf, blind, and incontinent. During the last months, our morning routine included me carrying him down the stairs of my second-floor apartment, propping him up in the backyard and (if he hadn't already deposited some dried-up turds during his sleep), tickling his bunghole with a stick to get him to do some business. That, my friends, is devotion.
He was deathly afraid of thunderstorms, and giving him the sedative our vet prescribed only made things worse: he would drunkenly reel around the house, trying to cram himself into tiny spaces like between the fridge and the wall, one time memorably leaving a stripe of stress-induced diarrhea all the way around the kitchen like a high-water mark.
He was also aggressive toward other male dogs, which led to at least one ticket from the sheriff's office and several vet bills. He always bit first and asked questions after he had bitten a couple more times. This was our fault, of course. The book my uncle had given me about training dogs emphasized coercive training techniques--for instance, discouraging your dog from eating food off the ground by sticking leads from a car battery into a tempting piece of meat--but never mentioned the concept of "socialization." This aggression hurt Mac more than his perceived enemies during his years hanging out on construction sites with me though, as when he leaped off of a second-story deck I was building in pursuit of a Cocker Spaniel in the distance, or when he hung himself by a long rope that tethered him to a stud in a house I was framing.
As I said, he was mostly a good boy and a great companion. He lived with me in a party house full of guys during college and for a few years afterward, and spent the rest of his life as a (mostly) beloved mascot on construction sites. There were tender moments--sure--but I'm not going to get all Marley and Me on you. The best stories about Mac always involve poop, dimwittedness, or danger. What follows is one of the most illustrative stories of Mac in his dotage.
My buddy and I had a little construction business in Charlottesville, VA, where I went to college and lingered for a long time after graduating. A lot of what we did was subcontracting from a big local builder. We specialized in hanging siding, installing exterior trim, and building decks--all the "pretty" carpentry on the outside of the house. I'm quite sure that my partner and I were the only college graduates among all the dozens of subcontractors that worked for this builder in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, so we were kind of considered the weirdos on the job, since we often conducted important and passionate philosophical discussions while we worked, about stuff like whether robots are inherently evil. And we talked like Yankees.
We were working one weekend in the dead of winter, trying to beat a deadline, and one other sub--a grizzled, toothless, old (probably 45, really) drywall finisher we called "Snuffy" behind his back even though everyone else called him Bernard Blue--was doing the same. Bernard (pronounced "BURN-urd") had brought his grandson to work with him that morning, and the five-year-old boy was huddled near the propane heater in the garage trying to keep warm as his grandpa walked around the garage on stilts, spreading drywall compound ("mud") over the seams in the ceiling.
I was on a scaffold about ten feet up, installing some crown moulding under the eaves, and my partner was cutting for me down on the ground. Mac lay in the garage near the heater.
Not long after we had gotten started, I caught a whiff of something acrid in the air, like someone was burning plastic. Or...
"His hahr's on fahr! His hahr's on fahr!!" I heard a desperate, frightened little voice call from inside the garage.
I squatted down on the scaffold so I could peek into the garage door and--sure enough--his hair was on fucking fire! Mac was engulfed in flames.
I unclasped my tool belt, allowing nails and tools to shower off the scaffold, and jumped off, landing hard on the frozen dirt.
I thumped the blazing sheepdog's side with my gloved hands until the fire was out.
"Jeesus Christ, Mac!" I yelled at the staggering apparition, now hairless on one side save for a few singed inches of matted fur. "What the hell were you doing?"
"He was tryin' to git my sammich," said Bernard's little grandson. He stood near the propane heater with his peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his hand, right at the level of Mac's fetid maw.
And in fact, Mac, seemingly untroubled by his recent immolation, recommenced his palsied pursuit of the boy's lunch. Mac was thirteen at this point, shaking and shambling when he walked as a result of his recent stroke; and he wobbled after that sandwich for all that he was worth, brushing against the heater, which was really just a big propane burner partially enclosed by a cylinder of sheet metal. The flames inside regularly lapped out of the top of the cylinder.
"What the fuck, Mac?" I grumbled as I pulled him to the far corner of the garage. "Are you out of your tiny little mind?" "Stay!" I hollered into his charred ear. Then I yelled it a couple more times, just in case.
I had just barely climbed onto the scaffold and gotten my tools back into order in their respective pouches on my belt when I heard the boys plaintive voice once more.
"His hahr's on fahr again! His hahr's on fahr again!" he bellowed.
Again I hopped off the scaffold, this time carefully removing my nailbags first, and again I patted out the flames.
"All right, Mac" I said. "I think you're going to spend the rest of the day in the truck."
You may wonder why I continued to bring this geriatric dog onto the jobsite with me, when he was clearly a liability; and you might reasonably assume that I stopped bringing him along after that episode. But in fact, I continued to carry him from the house and lay him in the backseat of my Forest-Service-green Suburban almost every morning until the one on which I took him to the SCPA whence he continued on to doggy heaven or whatever. It was months after the fire incident that he got stuck in quicksand, but I still toted him around after that. The practical explanation is that I didn't want to leave him in the house, emptying his bowels and bladder on our seventies-era shag carpet. But more than that, I guess, I was just used to having him around.