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.
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?