Tuesday, January 31, 2012


     For the first few years we grew up in a dogless home, not for lack of begging.  When they first married, Mom and Dad had a little Jack Russell named “Sugar” before taking on a two-year teaching gig in Melbourne, Australia. The thought of ever having to give another pup away sort of put them off of the whole idea.  Not us.  Mary and I brought home every stray we found running down Peabody Street and across the high school grounds.  I seem to remember a couple basset hounds, a black lab, a golden retriever, and probably one or two others here and there.  We brought them home with big weepy eyes and promises to bathe, feed, and scoop up after their every golden drop.  A few groans, grunts, and one phone call later, our highest hopes went home with their distraught owners.
My sister wised up before I ever did, and her focus changed from fruitless promises to financial strategy.  Pretty soon, Dad couldn’t watch the news without putting a few pennies in the jar marked “dog fund” that sat atop our old brown TV.  Jars started popping up all over the place: on the dryer, over the refrigerator, and even on the back of the toilet.  After a while it seemed very reasonable to pay only five cents for a bath or twenty-five cents to use the car.  We wore Dad down enough to say he would consider buying a dog, if we could come up with half the cost.   Penny by penny, month by month, we saved.  We said “no thank you” to trips to the movies, the Clallam County Fair, and ice cream.  We asked for nothing at Christmas (though Santa still came) and tried our best not to waste any food or electricity.  And eventually, after many extra chores, several baths, and every allowance we could afford, we had saved fifty dollars.  Never in our lives had we seen so much money all at once.  A small voice in the back of my head (I can only assume it was the devil, himself) said, “Fifty dollars will buy a lot of ‘Archie’ comics.  Fifty dollars will buy an Upper Deck complete set of baseball cards.”  It was true. I didn’t know when I would see this much money ever again, but it was half my sister’s and she was better at quieting the evil thoughts in her head.
We still had several months until school would be out for the summer and we would head off to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  Dogs cost a lot less in Montana, so we gave all our money to dad for safe-keeping and made plans for the new puppy.  With highlighters in hand (Mary with pink and I, blue), we scribbled through our tattered “Big Book of Baby Names,” page by page.  I liked things like “Jasper” or “Max.”  Mary said we would get a girl dog because dad had to make back his fifty dollars by selling her pups. I couldn’t think of a single girl name I liked—including my own—so I gave up the reigns and went out to play.  Mary had been on a General Custer history-kick that year—she always seemed to get caught up in one era or another, and her life focused on little else until the obsession passed.  We heard again and again the stories of the Little Bighorn, and how we “white folk” completely lost that battle due to our own dumb pride.  Therefore, Mary coined the dog “Libby,” to be named after General Custer’s wife.  I didn’t hate the name, but I had never heard it before. 
Summer came, and along with it, our expectations.  Dad and Mom planned a big family trip to—where else—the Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Grandma and Grandpa, aunts and uncles, and plenty of cousins piled in and spent the week in Miles City looking at Great-Grandpa Baba’s childhood ranch (made famous by a visit from painter Charlie Russell), a museum of human hair, and the Little Bighorn National Monument.  Mary click-clicked her little red camera wherever she went, her eyes gleaming with the glory of it all.  To stand on the place where your hero (albeit a total dunce) met his maker was nearly more than she could handle.  But at last, after several 100-degree plus days in tiny motel rooms, we packed up and headed north on highway eighty-seven. 
We found our next destination off the beaten path, in a little place called Lewistown.  We’d been driving all day, but wouldn’t let dad stop for anything short of emergencies.  And now, here we were— months of anticipation all just a memory.  The old wooden sign out front said it all: “Pete’s Beagle Farm.”  Mary and I raced to meet old Pete, in his red ball cap and worn-out overalls, sitting peacefully on his porch.  He hadn’t a tooth in his head and his thick glasses made it very hard to see his expression; but he seemed happy to see us.  From the look of things, no one had stopped by in a very long time.  Pete opened the gate and led us back to his dogs.  There appeared to be about a hundred beagles all over the place.  The males had their own yard filled with stumps and barrels to climb on, while the females slept peacefully with their pups.  We peered in, kennel by kennel, wondering just who would come home with us.  Mary asked for a little girl and Pete said there were only two: one with a hernia (but he “would sell ‘er for fifty”) and another he was keeping to breed.  We held the little girl, but she was awfully sick and dad said that we needed to take home a healthy dog. 
Circling the yard, we came to a kennel at the very end.  The puppies all slept in a tiny black and tan mound, hidden under their mother’s protective paw.  “Will they always be black?” I asked.  Pete said he supposed they would develop their colors in time, but “a black beagle is a dead beagle.”  People in those parts didn’t buy dogs for pets, but for hunting or for show.  No one wanted an “imperfect” show hound.  I frantically scanned the puppies, looking for one doomed to be dark, but no one could tell at this age.  Who knew what they would become. 

That’s when we met George.

Mary reached into the soft, earthy-smelling pile and grabbed a tiny nugget with a birthmark on his bum.  He didn’t even wake as she held him to her chest, cooing and singing softly to his little head.  Mother Beagle looked up but showed no concern—she knew we would be gentle.  No, he certainly wasn’t a “Libby,” but that wee little lump walked away with a large moniker.  “Puppy” was now “General George Armstrong Custer.”  He would have to become a much bigger dog to live up to a name like that.  But I almost didn’t mind my sister’s eccentricities.  After all, who needed a “Rover” or a “Fido?”  The second we yelled his name, only one dog would come running. 
Almost immediately, “General George” became “Georgie” because he was just so dang cute.  We placed him, still sleeping, in a little cardboard box filled with blankets that smelled like his mom.  Under the old pillow was a clock shaped like a big pink jewel that steadily ticked, reminding Georgie of his mother’s very own heartbeat.  And with that, off we drove to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, with the newest Leinart sleeping softly in the back seat, unaware of all the little hands that would be holding him in just a few hours.
That first night at Grandma and Grandpa’s could have been a little easier, had the weather been kind.  But Montana in the summertime is prone to violent thunderstorms, and this was no exception.  Our poor pup whimpered and yelped from his box between the twin beds.  We dipped our hands down beside him but he didn’t know us.  We didn’t smell like Mom; we didn’t look like Mom.  Dad opened the curtain that separated the two rooms, and lifted George out of the box.  Downstairs, he took our scared little dog out into the stormy night.  Sheet-lightning lit the outdoors like midday, and George shook as dad stood over him saying, “Go, dammit!”
At summer’s end, George came home with us to Washington.  Excitedly, he bolted through the yard, heading straight for the garden to pull up the veggies.  Only then did we learn that his favorite food was carrots.  That dog would do anything for carrots.  With one or two in his mouth, he whipped back to the porch to meet his new nemesis.  Our old calico, Coko, had no need in her life for anything small, cute, or friendly.  Coko looked at us with disdain and jumped onto the roof to sulk in the shadow of the chimney.  George, caring little for Coko’s opinion, ran into the house to sniff every square inch of furniture and to “claim” it before being tossed back outside.  There he found his new favorite place underneath the old apple tree in our back yard.  He nibbled at the rotten ones and scratched his backside against the bark.
From that very first day, until the day I left for college, George slept under the covers at the foot of my bed.  He became my closest confidant and pal.  Mary, who quickly saw the drawback to owning a dog, decided that she preferred being a “cat-person” and did her best to coax Coko out of her perpetual mood.  But for me, I had a friend and tag-along for life who sat with me while I did my homework, pawed at my toes for a secret snack under the dinner table, and sang while I practiced my piano lessons.  Yes, George was the dog for me. 
Over the years, George grew quite popular with everyone in town.  While I went to school, Mom walked him down to the waterfront and around the neighborhoods.  In the early mornings, George sat with my school friends at the bus stop, eating pumice stones out of old Mr. Stevens’ perfectly manicured lawn.  No one could figure out why he loved the crunch of pumice so much, but he downed several pounds over the years and lived to tell the tale.  But he almost didn’t.  One day, while out on one of his adventures, George swallowed a rock that he couldn’t digest.  My cheerful, happy, excitable mutt held his head down and moaned.  I offered him a can of tuna—a treat for any dog—but he merely looked away.  I told dad that George looked sick and he mumbled something like “sure, always on the weekend…” but our vet came in to take a look.  Dr. Mowbry felt poor Georgie’s sore belly, took a few pictures of his insides, and gave the diagnosis.  A rock.  A $400 rock, to be exact.  Apparently, it was small enough to fit in one end, but just too big to come out the other.  Dad said there was no way he was spending four-hundred bucks to pull a rock out of a “stupid dog,” when the dog cost only a hundred bucks to begin with.  Mom, Mary, and I cried and pleaded.  He was such a good dog.  How could we let such a good dog die?  There would never be another good dog like him. Please dad! We convinced him—or he had second thoughts about going home with three females who would hate him ever after—and dad wrote the check.  But to this day, we have a little pill bottle on the mantle above the fireplace, and inside that little bottle is a small stone.  Dad keeps it there because he says it’s the most expensive thing in the house.
Each December, our family would pile into dad’s truck to go find a Christmas tree up in the mountains.  As a member of the family, George always came along.  He loved not having to be leashed and ran up and down the trails, marking every stump and twig as “his.”  My mother always fretted that he would be eaten by a bear or get lost in the snow.  Dad said he “hoped so,” but George found his way back every time.  If he did get stuck, we heard the pathetic baying ringing through the trees and dropped everything to rescue him.  On the way down the mountain, dad thought it was fun to let George run.  Mom, Mary, and I would, again, beg and cry, pleading with dad to let George back in the truck.  But Dad, laughing hysterically, would pile us in and take off, as if he was leaving George forever.  George would barrel down the mountain in a tiny little ball, legs above his head, frantic to catch up.  Never had that dog run so fast.  About a mile later, dad would pull the truck over and let our poor, shaking dog inside.  And every time, George would have a smile and would wag his tail in forgiveness, before collapsing into a well-deserved nap.
All throughout my life, I could rely on George to understand whatever I was thinking.  For some reason, he always knew my mood.  If I aced a test, he sat waiting for me, looking out the window, full of life and excitement.  He knew that something great had happened, and was prepared to go jumping around the house with me.  Still too, if a boy dumped me (and believe me, a few have), George knew it.  He would head straight to my bedroom and curl up next to my head, licking my tear-stained cheeks.  If it took all night long to stop crying, he would never move until I moved first.  I tried to return the favor.  Some of his worst days were spent cowering in the closet.  Generally this occurred only on the 4th of July (or if the red-neck neighbors got a little crazy), but I always tried to make him comfortable until he felt safe enough to come out.  Other times, when he got in big trouble for eating Grandma’s Parisian chocolates or peeing on the photo albums, he would hide behind the couch, fearful of my dad’s yelling and stomping around the house.  On those days, I climbed behind the couch, carrot in hand, and we held a little pow-wow until the moment had passed. 
Before I graduated from high school, the silver streaks lined George’s soft face.  He still got excited when the moment warranted, but a little more slowly each time.  For fun, I would bring him to history class with me, where he would spar with Mr. Rennie’s basset hound, Ralph.  Ralph was often dropped off by the local police after escaping from his back yard.  He always headed straight for the bread aisle at Albertsons, where a clerk would call an officer, who knew to bring him straight to school.  They never wrote a ticket because this was routine and almost happily anticipated. 
Our loved puppy dog grew older, slower, and quieter.  He still followed my every move, but preferred sitting.  When I would stand up, he looked at me as if to say “please, let’s stay a while.”  The sweet old beagle who grew up with me, who watched every baseball game with my dad, and who did his best to protect all of us, was fading away.
I dreaded going away to college.  I had always known that life with my pal would never be the same.  Dad brought him to school a few times, for overnights in the dorm.  He would smile sleepily and crawl under the covers to the foot of my bed, just like he always had.  Mom still took him for walks, but he limped a little now, and couldn’t go quite as far. 
One day, I got a call.  Old George, blind, deaf, and without the nose that defined his breed, had no quality of life.  He still responded happily to soft pats on the head or a scratch on his bum.  He still sat under his favorite apple tree, squinting at the sunset behind the mountains.  But he was saying good-bye to all of us. 
“It’s time,” my dad said.  I waited until after work to cry, but told him to hang on until I could get home.  I packed my clothes into the back of my clunky Subaru, and gave dad one more call before hitting the road.  “It’s done, Ellie,” he said softly.  Angrily I told him he should have waited for me.  George would want me there.  But dad said that it needed to be quick, for George’s sake.  Even our poor old vet cried the day George said good-bye.  She had given him his baby boosters, and he knew her and loved her. 
George died in 2003.  Dad buried him under the apple tree in his favorite spot.  It was there that he could see the whole world from atop his little hill.  I go and sit out there on warm days, leaning against the trunk where he would scratch his back on the bark.  I see the rotten apples he would nudge and nibble, and I shut my eyes and pretend that he is still here. 

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