Doggie Stories


My mom and dad got a new pup when they moved from the Short Street, Arroyo Grande out to the ranch. They were living on acreage for the first time since they had married two year before. To celebrate they got themselves a little black and white pup. They named her Bitty because she was just a little bit of a thing. Dr. Case had told my mom she would never have children and the young couple needed a puppy to lavish all that care on. It was my mom mostly.

You see my dad had grown up and spent his whole life farming and ranching where dogs were treated like livestock. He and my uncle Jack had many pets I suppose, but not in the sense you know now. The cows had names and personalities just like the goat and “FLU” the pig. That didn’t mean there was any sentiment when ” Flu ” was cooked and served for Christmas dinner. The vet might be called out for livestock, they, after all, were the source of income but dogs and cats were simply left to get by on there own. Bit by a rabid skunk, the dog would die. A cat hurt in the hay bailer, same thing. There were always more, especially when you lived right next to the road. Someone would surely come along and dump their unwanted animals at the gate.

When I was a boy this still applied and we thought nothing of it. As kids we loved our dogs but they had to get by on there own. They had their jobs. Ground squirrels were their prey. At the ranch the cats worked too. If they were good mousers they got to live in the calf shed where the feed was stored or in the hay barn to keep the mouse population down. Fed just enough, they killed field mice by the thousands. Lest you think any of this is cruel, the cute little mousies nested in the hay and left their urine and waste all over it and the cattle refused to eat the contaminated food. The ground squirrels built towns in the pastures with hundreds of holes and created wastelands where the stock could not graze nor walk. Gophers in the row crops ate plant roots destroying the plants meant to feed families. Every square yard of a farmers land is meant to produce crops. It takes from 1.5 to 3 acres of pasture to support a cow depending on conditions, rainfall, cost of feed and other factors. You can see why acreage is closely guarded by the grower and his dog.

In our family there is hardly a family photo without a dog somewhere in it. Over time some of them have become legends from the telling and retelling of things they did.

Little Bitty grew up, of course and to a certain extant lost my mothers affection because the woman who would never be able to conceive, did. In fact she did it three times. In the forties nobody “fixed” a dog, male or female and Bitty was no exception. If you live on a ranch your neighbors live some distance away and the chances of interacting or even seeing other dogs is unlikely. Unless you have a female in heat and then male dogs come out of the woodwork. There are various ways to thwart these insane Lotharios, most of which consist of locking the bitch up. If you put here in the cab of a truck, the males will scratch the paint off the doors, If you try to sleep at night, the howling will keep you awake. Male dogs will kill each other over the chance to breed. They don’t get many opportunities in a life time. One time my dads solution was to lock Bitty in the second floor room of our tank house. At night the pack of neighbor dogs would circle the building like Sioux warriors attacking a wagon train, howling and barking while Bitty whined and cried in her prison tower. One night the pack killed Old Man Parrish’s Collie dog in their frenzy. Bitty, for her part, scratched and chewed at the wooden walls of her jail until one morning she made a hole big enough to crawl through and jumped, my dad said flew, through the air into a walnut tree and then to the ground and proceeded to run those male dogs on a wild goose chase. Three days later she came home, dirty, bedraggled but with a stupid grin on her face and  two months later produced one tiny little pup.

Paco was a volunteer dog. One of our field workers though Mister George’s kids needed a dog so the half grown pup joined the family. Paco was a funny looking guy of no particular breed, so much so that you could never figure out what combination of different types he might be. He was a kind of a leatherish brown color with medium length brown hair that stuck out in all directions. He was no house dog, I don’t recall him every being in the back porch, which is where dogs were allowed for feeding. Like our other dogs he slept wherever he liked. There was the seat on the Caterpillar tractor or perhaps the greatest luxury, a pickup with an open door. There were burlap sacks from the walnut orchard in the packing shed and in the warm months, plenty of weed patches to curl up on. Paco was no dilettante, he seemed never to be bothered by anything, he even slept out in the rain on occasion. I was always struck by his nobility. He was friendly enough but he never stooped to things like jumping on people or, God forbid, licking your hand or face. He didn’t bark much and barely took notice of strange people in cars. He had no sense of being a watchdog. Sometimes he would follow us out to the school bus or greet us with a wag when we came home from school but mostly he was content to just be by himself and observe his world. I was just a little kid when he arrived and was well into my teens when he lay down and died, quietly of course. He lived a long life and is remembered in the family with fondness.

Then there was Max. Max and Paco were contemporaries but couldn’t have been less alike. Max was a Fox Terrier, a smooth one, white with big tan spots. He was affectionate, intelligent, a playful dog and boy was he speedy. He could run a jackrabbit down if he could flush one into the open. The Jacks lived in our celery crops. Celery was perfect, it had tender leaves and grew in tightly packed rows where they could hide in the daytime. Remember what I said about our livelihood. Every stalk was precious and Jackrabbits could be a pest. Not only could Max outrun a Jack, he could do the thing most dogs can’t, he could turn with them. A Jackrabbit can usually escape a dog by turning on a dime which most dogs can’t do. Think of the big black SUV in the movies chasing down the guy in the little sports coupe. The coupe can turn on a dime and leave change but the SUV is a big lumbering machine thats only good on a straight road. Well, Maxie was a dirt bike to the Jackrabbits coupe.

His other job was gophers. Dad would put irrigation water down the gopher holes and when the gopher popped out, it was whack-a-mole for Max, a bite and a shake; job done. He was also our premier watchdog. Where Paco observed, Max acted. Though he weighed only about fifteen pounds and stood just an inch or two over a foot he had absolutely no fear. Turn into our driveway, really a ranch road about a quarter mile long, he’d be on you before you’d gone twenty yards. The whole distance to the house you’d be attacked by this little dog. The closer you come the more ferocious he became, attacking your front tires, snapping and biting at them with a frenzy that had to be seen to be believed. The piece de resistance, though, was as you drew near the house, he would begin jumping up and down as he ran, finally levitating even with the drivers window and barking and growling into the drivers face. People were flabbergasted. Windows were rolled up as fast as possible. This little dog was insane; people would or could not get out of their cars until somebody came out of the house to rescue them. If the whole family was in the house we’d run to the windows and watch Max put on his act and many a good laugh was had at the reactions of the people who came to visit.

Fred was my brothers dog, some sort of Beagleish type dog. Longer of leg than your typical beagle, he was black and white with a smattering of black freckles on his white snout. He was a congenial dog and one of the family favorites. A good boy, he liked to follow dad wherever he went. He followed the trucks and tractors around the fields and made fast friends among the Mexicans and Filipino field workers. He was a taco lover of the first degree. He possessed a strange intelligence though, which he demonstrated occasionally.

One of our neighbors Lena Sevier raised chickens. The chickens, once known as Italians, were  originally imported from the central Italian city of Livorno in Tuscany. Livorno, in the American way was bastardized to leghorn, the name by which they are known today. You recognize them by their all white feathers. Lena’s birds were semi-wild as they lived and roosted outside and around the ranch building on her property. The chickens foraged under the Eucalyptus trees, the poison oak along the bluff and even crossed Branch Mill Road to look for grubs under Gladys Sullivan’s enormous old walnut tree. They had become wily creatures because they had to defend themselves against all kinds of predators, not the least of which were dogs. He evidently decided that a chicken dinner would be just the thing and made his way to the walnut tree. Having absolutely no experience in chicken snatching, he actually ran one down. Beginners luck I reckon. Thats not the end of the story though. He didn’t kill it but carried it home, a distance of about a half mile with the hen flapping and trying to peck him the whole way. By the time he got to the yard he was exhausted trying to hold to hen and dinner seemed to be a whole lot of hard work so he decided to bury it instead. Maybe he knew what happened to the last chicken stealing dog we had.

He went out to the back of the house near where dad parked the John Deere and set the bird down and began furiously digging a hole. The chicken immediately made a break for it and Fred had to leave the hole and run it down again. After this had played out several times, the hole was ready and he threw the chicken into it. He started nosing dirt into the hole but the uncooperative hen bolted, again making a break for freedom just like Steve McQueen on his motorcycle. Fred tried one more time but the result was the same. The writing on the wall was there for anyone to see, even a not very bright dog. He gave up and just laid down in the dirt with his head on his paws. Forget the chicken. It disappeared across the fields headed for home and Fred never bothered with Lena’s chickens again.

Clancy was a Chihuahua and he was my brother Cayces. He came from a line of dogs my uncle Jack had for keeping the hay barn mouse free. The little dogs were perfect for that job because of their size. When you hooked a bale and moved it just a little they would dart underneath and grab any mice that might be so unfortunate as to be there. The dogs were natural born killers. Clancy was named after the pugnacious symbol of Irishness, the fists up, bandy legged, always ready to fight Fenian devil so often portrayed in popular culture.

The Irish have taken that symbol to heart instead of moaning about an insult to their culture.  The Irish people fought everyone and when there were no invasions by the hated English they fought amongst themselves, every Irishman a King is the old saying and they meant it. Clancy was the pure embodiment of this even if he was a Mexican. He was ready to go at the drop of a hat, a mean little bugger if push came to shove. He loved only my brother, and women. Not human women but dog women. He tried to leave his legacy behind at every opportunity and when there was a dog in heat anywhere within the territory he would be there, duking it out with other much bigger dogs for the prize.

Finally my dad had had enough of him coming home beaten up, dirty, bedraggled and bloody. He vowed to start locking him up when there was any suspicion that sexual activities were on the horizon. Late one night he started acting up and clawing the back porch door to get out, moaning in his high pitched doggy voice, a sure sign that we were about to suffer another episode of sexual hi-jinks. Dad got up from his chair and said he was going to fix this so we could have some peace and grabbed the little dog and went out the back door to the grey, one ton flatbed truck he used for hauling vegetables, opened the drivers side door and threw him in and slammed the door behind him.

For a few hours peace prevailed. Quiet in the house, everyone eventually drifted off to bed. Now, every military mind knows that the best time for attack is in the very early morning when sleep is the deepest. As far away from awake as the mind can get, reaction time is slow in coming. Clancy must have somehow, in his little pea brain known this for at 3:30 AM he stood up on his hind legs, placed his front paws on the horn button  and let ‘er rip. Like an air raid siren the horn howled and howled and howled, waking everyone in the farmhouse and the labor camp barracks. More than a dozen people were startled from deep sleep by the bellow of the horn. Or maybe, the yowl from my dad as he crashed through the back door, slamming the screen so hard the handle broke, making for the truck, still in his pajamas and bare feet. He yanked the drivers side door open and Clancy shot out of the truck and disappeared into the night.

Two days later the little dog returned. He was in his usual state. Dad gave him the fish eye which Clancy returned.  Eventually they settled into a state of equilibrium, though Clancy was the obvious winner in the battle of wills. The best part of the story was the reaction of the Mexican Braceros who worked and lived with us, for each time they saw the little dog and my dad together they pointed at him laughed, saying “Mr George, el perro quiere conducir la camioneta,” while pantomiming turning a steering wheel and blowing the horn. Dad would laugh as hard as they did.

Gus or Gussie is pictured at the beginning of this story. He was a big rangy black and white indeterminate mix of flavors but my brother loved him just the same. He had the run of the neighborhood near their home up in Auburn and would run his route each day, visiting neighbors and enjoying the odd scratch and the treats offered. He collapsed last week and Jerry found out his big heart was surrounded by a cancerous tumor and he had to be put to sleep as there was nothing to be done. They were devastated and not just Jerry and Chris but the entire neighborhood. He was that kind of dog. 

My son Will and his girl Dina’s first order of business was to pick out a puppy when they decided to be together. His name was River. He was my granddog of course and got along famously with our girl Grace whenever he visited from Arizona. He like to dig holes for no reason whatsoever and was just the sort of runaround dog yo ucan enjoy watching while sitting on the patio in Mesa. A busy beaver, a cuddly beaver who enjoyed a proper couch. My oldest boy Will, had to make the sad decision to put him to sleep today. He had some kind of immune deficiency that transfusions could not fix. 

Will and little River in better days.

A tough week in the Shannon family. There are people I can’t love. Dogs ask nothing, don’t complain, don’t judge, don’t proselytize, and will give you their all. How can you not care for them?


Forging Iron

There is an island in Pacific Ocean. It is the Mecca for surfers from around the world. In the days before professional surfing transformed this place, it was peopled by young surfers from all over the world.  Many lived on a shoestring, putting up with the privations this caused in order to surf the most incredible waves on the face of the earth.

We will not say there aren’t good waves elsewhere, because there are. The difference is that there are so many high quality surf breaks in such a small place. In an eight mile stretch; a drive of just 20 minutes, are the most famous surf spots on earth. Even non-surfers know the names of the Banzai Pipeline, Sunset Beach and Wiamea Bay, just three of the many.

2nd reef pipe

In the 1960’s and ’70’s the houses that dotted this coastline were occupied by a disparate band of surfer pirate types. Boys, men and girls from California, Texas and Florida; Peru and Brazil, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, all lived together in rental houses along Ke-Nui Road, just off the Kamehameha Highway that circles the island. Ke Nui isn’t really a street, its a little dirt road paralleling the highway, providing entrance to the properties fronting it so they don’t have to enter directly onto the main road. Hawaiian names and phrases are difficult to the translate directly to english but the two words can be explained as Ke, the, and Nui, large or big, Ke-Nui. It is an appropriate name as the little lane fronts some of the biggest rideable surf on earth.

If you drive up the highway from Haleiwa town, (house of the Frigate bird) towards Sunset Beach, passing Wiamea Bay and Pupukea road, look for the turnoff by John Steele and “Fat Pauls” house, take that onto Ke-Nui and go past Ehukai Beach Park and just beyond it, just on your left, is the setting for this little story.

It was a simple two bedroom, one bath home built in the late fifties. Like many Hawaiian homes of the era it was built for comfort not speed. The climate is mild on the north shore of Oahu and much of the living is outdoors. A big deck facing the ocean, a large grassy area on the street side. No garage and no fences, just a hedge of Oleander that defined property boundaries but allowed easy passage in the spirit of Aloha.

You could literally walk down the street, knocking on doors, asking if there was any room to rent and you could find them. During the peak surf season, houses might have more than a dozen people living in them with only the leaseholder actually having a job. People slept on couches, on the floor and in bunk beds on the sleeping porches. A little girl I knew lived in a closet. Most contributed in some way. You might own a car for transportation, or, supply food for all to eat. Some houses had banks of refrigerators owned by different people or groups. One house I knew had padlocks on their refrigerators, for the spirit of RF prevailed. Stolen food, eaten, left no evidenciary trail.

Most of the itinerant surfers had limited budgets. Money saved from a job on the mainland or perhaps unemployment insurance. Carefully parceled out you could live for months without working. Occasionally someone might have no money and grifted around, eating for free. Those that have the least are the most generous to others that have less. Some work the hotels as gardeners or maids, girls waited table, some kids worked construction and the most successful at this might make a permanent life there.

Our hero lived on unemployment, arranged with a co-operative mainland boss who would lay him off for a few months in the winter so he could journey to Hawaii. He moved into this particular house in the fall, anxious to help himself to the amazing winter waves.

The Wide World of Sports would lead you to believe that the huge waves are an almost daily occurrence. They are not. Weeks may pass between swells that produce big, rideable surf. Winters have passed in which almost no surf of that size has appeared. Conditions can change in just minutes. Wind changes velocity and direction, a new swell pushes onshore and waves can grow dramatically in size. Big wave surfers must be prepared. Depending on your experience you might not want to try big surf right out of the gate. Perhaps spend a few weeks, months or even a season or two before you try the really dangerous stuff. Up to you.

Mike arrived in midwinter. For those that don’t know him, we can say that he is not lacking in bravado. Looking like a fire plug, broad shoulders, strong legs and a forward leaning personality, he can fill a room or house with bluster and testosterone. In all the years I’ve known him I’ve never seen him show fear or trepidation. Confidence just oozes from him.

From the front deck of the house the view is from Sunset Beach on your right to the Banzai Pipeline on your left. There are many surf spots in between, Pupukea, Sandbar, Gas chambers and Rocky Point. Names that are descriptive of their nature, rocky coral and shallow bottoms, two feet of water over hard sand or in the case of gas chambers, a wave ending at a the apply named, protruding “Death Rock” which, if you surf there you must take in the possibility you may not come out at the end. These though, are essentially smaller wave spots, easily ridden with a little experience and practice. It’s the bookends of your view that really count. Sunset Beach, a world renowned very big wave and “The Pipe”, arguably the most famous surf spot on earth. Numbers of surfers have died there and many dozens more seriously injured. I suffered a serious concussion there on a relatively small day that required hospitalization. The veteran surfer carries the scars from coral head slices, the marks made are akin to being dragged across a giant cheese grater. Riding there on a perfect, big day can be the adrenaline injection of a lifetime. Of course, that’s exactly the point, isn’t it?

Never to be taken lightly, Pipe consists of both an inner and an outer reef. If you’ve seen it on TV you’ve most likely seen the inner reef, a perfect, left breaking tube that gets big enough to fit a good sized car in.  The surfers who have dominated the place are world famous. They can make it look easy as all great athletes do. They have all taken their lumps though and photos of broken bleeding surfers being helped out of the water are legion.

Outside, or second reef is another story. Basically the same hollow wave shape as the inner reef except its immeasurably larger. A moving behemoth of dark blue ocean that moves in a grand and stately manner toward its ultimate demise.  No one who does not surf big waves can have any conception of the fear engendered by the approach of this beautiful blue mountain with the pure white feathered crown of spume blown off the top by the trade winds sliding down the slopes of the Ko’olau Range to the east. Not many surfers brave this.

In the house, the resident surfers had watched the surf building for an entire day. Sitting on the chairs and handrail, insulting each other as young men do to show affection. Frank and Clown Boy, Steven and his wife, Spider Wills, a neighbor and filmmaker; Jim “Cat Daddy” Craig, who was studying marine geology at the University of Hawaii, Stefan Schweitzer, architect and big Norman Ratzlaff, an impossibly tall, red haired teaser. Norman’s stock phrase was “Don’t be afraid,” delivered in a sepulchral voice and applied to anyone showing the least bit of caution about anything that might be going on. Our boy had arrived in this menagerie just two days before and hadn’t yet ridden a single big wave. He had opinions though and was eager to go after the biggest and baddest waves when he got the chance.

In the very early morning, before the dawn, he awoke to an ominous rumbling and a rolling, shaking of the house. He crawled out of his sleeping bag, stumbling over the other forms lying about, carefully going up the stairs from the back porch to the kitchen. Through the kitchen to the living room, carefully avoiding the sleepers, trying to avoid scattered clothes and discarded sandals until he found the screen door. A matter of just a moment led him out onto the night damp deck where the rumbling sound became the distinct crashing of line after line of perfect waves breaking on the coral reef. Black and dimly seen in the dim light of the predawn, maximum, first reef pipeline was attacking the shore. With no morning trade winds blowing, the glass smooth waves marched one after another to their doom, cracking and spitting as tons of water pounded down upon itself in an orgy of destruction. The waves broke and the earth moved.

At first light, sleepy eyed surfers stumbled from their houses, breakfast bowls in hand, surveying the waves. How big was it, would it get bigger, could a good paddler even get out through the rip. The tidal rip was a river of water flowing east inside the breaking waves, seeking a way back out to the ocean. You had to think, am I strong enough, can I hold my breath long enough, do I want to go? At first all thoughts are kept quiet, no one talks while minds are made up, courage is screwed up, or not. Thoughtful courage in which risks are weighted against thrills or testosterone courage where no risk is considered too much to attain the end result; both carefully considered. Decisions can be made on factors other than skill level or experience. Does a dark and ominous lowering sky nuance your decision? A bright and sunny day might make a difference too, a little less trepidation on a warm and bright sunny day.

Norman; “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid,” begins his chant. He’s not going himself so he’s willing to test others. Boys, in particular know this device, most have listened to it since their earliest days. “C’mon man, you go first, I’ll be right behind you,” or “Whatsa matter, you scared?” The only one who spoke against the rising, vocal tide was our man. In truth he didn’t need to be shamed, he was going, it’s what he had come for. The teasing drove him forward even harder.

Every part of surfing is timing. I don’t mean just the riding either, Paddling to the correct spot, timing the take-off, staying in the right spot, which in Hawaii generally means constant paddling because contrary to what the tourist from Idaho sees from shore, massive amounts of water are in constant motion. In fact, the sea is alive, it moves in all dimensions. Just as the atmosphere moves in the form of wind, does the sea move by current.

Paddling like mad, you thrust your arms shoulder deep in the roiling water of the rip current,  sliding sideways faster than you can propel yourself outward, aiming for the small area where it was just possible to get out past the heavy breaking waves of the inside section. By a miracle of effort and shear luck our hero punched through the top of a breaking wave and made it to the outside. Clearing  the inside breaking waves,  it was an easy paddle to the second reef wave that only broke on very big days. The water that far from shore being much deeper, The initial wave tended to be a little less critical on the take-off. Bigger but slower than the inside wave, the outside is easier to catch but once caught, it becomes ever more critical, faster; in effect, cranking up the volume pass the ten mark in very short order. Imagine coming to the top of the roller coaster where the drop begins slowly and accelerates so fast that it takes your breath away and you’ve got it.

The surfers problem though, was that as the massive energy surge that created the waves moved closer to shore where the water is much shallower both the velocity of, and the power increased exponentially which meant that you must be far enough down the face with your surfboard flying at maximum velocity or the wave would simply rise up faster than you could go. The result is to be pulled to the very top of the breaking wave and then be pitched outward and downward with the crest. You are, for about two seconds that seems, like an eternity, as weightless as an astronaut. The space man is fortunate in the sense that he isn’t about to have hundreds of tons of angry ocean fall on his head and try and drive your soft little body headlong onto the absolutely unforgiving coral reef just a few short feet under water. Pipeline can, and will kill. Every surfer that tries his luck  there knows this.


As you fall, the mind is hyperactive, Thoughts moving at the speed of light flash through the brain which knows that any outcome other than the inevitable is hopeless. Relax and enjoy, the old saying goes.

All of this takes place in silence. All of the whirling spinning motion takes place without the ear being conscious of sound. It’s one of the quirks of surfing, its nearly always quiet out there, the booming and crashing the bystander hears barely registers to the man of the moment. We’ve all had that dream of falling silently through infinite space, not able to take a breath, the dream seeming never to end.

The crowd on the front deck watched all this with, at first amusement and then not a little horror as he free fell, was crushed and disappeared for long moments, that to the surfer held down by all that immense weight seems to last forever. Finally a small dot appeared in the churning spinning white foam that was all that was left of the spent wave. Time seemed to drag as Mike slowly swam himself to the shore and crawled on all fours onto the steep sand shingle of the beach. He paused for a long time, head down, still on his hands and knees, sagging slightly and gasping for a clean breath of air, then he slowly rose, stumbled to his surfboard and slowly walked up the beach towards home.

Then a strange metamorphosis occurred. As the butterfly slowly emerges from its chrysalis so did Mike emerge from his beating. By the time he got to use he was talking a mile a minute, his right eye in the twitch we all knew to be a sign of hyperactive excitement. “Did you guys see that?” “Oh man, what a wave” In just a moment he went from being dead Mike to “Iron Mike,” someone who could survive giant waves and laugh about it.

“Iron Mike.” As the days passed the experience went from black and white to technicolor. From near death to pure life, the biggest wave, the best ride, and the longest hold down. “Why, those coral head were covered with razor blades boys, cut me like glass, pounded me like hammers, held me down for 5 minutes at least.”

In a world of young single men where the art of BS, the  “Jive ” is sublime, this story was over the top. Funny at first, then the inevitable “Not again,” Reality become fantasy become yesterdays news. We’ve all surfed in those conditions, we knew the risk and the experience. Embellished and polished, the story got better but at the same time more fantastic until it entered the realm of “Jiveness.”

“Iron Mike, Iron Mike, Iron Jive,” Perfect. It was done. Forty some years later whenever the story is told, he is still the “Iron Jive.” And you know what, we love him for it.






The Written Word


I cannot remember the time when I didn’t have a library card. My mother started taking  us to the little library behind the American Legion hall on Orchard street when I was just a little guy. It was the domain of Mrs Bernice Kitchell. She was the first librarian ever I knew. She was not too tall, slight in stature, almost too thin, wore spectacles and always had her hair up. She was very nice to little boys and guided us around the tiny rooms, for the library was, at that time, just a temporary building. Being a temporary building, it is, of course still there sixty five years later. At the time it was just a simple city library, not the kind you see today, but financed by the town. Mrs Kitchell was of course paid a pittance and in return she did every job required or not. She scrounged…

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