16 April 2008

A Dog's Life: Then and Now

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine lamented the disappearance of the rough and tumble childhood. Gone are the days of going out to play in the neighborhood or the ubiquitous “woods” with little or no supervision. Such carefree times have been replaced by play dates and latchkeys, and playstations. This generation of children are among the most watched over in the history of our nation. Childhood has changed in America, and the debate is raging as to whether it is for better or worse.

I don’t have children as yet, but I do have a dog. I must admit that I, like many dog owners, particularly single or childless ones, have often made the comparison between having a dog and having kids. It should come as no surprise then that the lives of dogs today, like those of kids today, are much more tightly controlled and organized than they were a generation ago.

In my neighborhood, growing up, dogs were everywhere. Nobody chained their dogs so they were free to wander and roam. Even during times when my family did not have a dog, there were always dogs in my yard. There was Picoh (Pee-KOH), a collie who lived over the hill and through the woods (literally). Sasha, my best friends Siberian Husky (For some reason, she liked to lay on the double yellow line, right in the middle of the road. She was eventually hit by a car). Bopper, a Doberman Pincer mix, lived about a half mile up the road, but spent most of his time down by us, because his owner beat him.

Once, when Bopper showed up bleeding after a particularly harsh beating, my mother went and confronted the owner, threatening to call dog control and the police. A few days later, he shot his aged parents, killing his father and seriously wounding his mother. He was killed in a standoff with police that same night. My mom always wondered if she set him off.

Then there was Duck. Duck was a Black Lab. She was one of a kind. Why they named a dog Duck I will never know. But I can tell you that it caused problems for me in Kindergarten. Any time the teacher showed a picture of a dog, I would point at it and say "Duck".

She originally lived in a house that lay behind ours, a short walk through the woods. But, she belonged to the Old Wife and when the New Wife came along she simply stopped letting her inside and stopped feeding her. She became a neighborhood dog. She wandered about the neighborhood and everywhere she went people fed her, took care of her.

After a time she developed an aversion to being inside, preferring cold but wide open spaces to a warm, but cramped living room. The only time she voluntarily came inside was when we had a bear in the back yard. She faithfully met me at the bus stop every morning from the time I was in first grade until I was a senior in high school. One day, in the spring of 1992, we found Duck in the back yard. She had laid down to sleep that night and never woke up. I still miss her.

Alas, most dogs today do not know such a carefree existence. Consider the life of my current dog Tippy, when compared with one of my childhood dogs, Molly:

NOW: When I leave the house everyday, I make sure the Tippy is IN. My neighbors wouldn’t tolerate a loose dog, and besides, he might run away!!!

THEN: When I left for school in the morning, I made sure Molly was OUT. My mom wouldn’t tolerate letting the mangy mutt have the run of the house all day. Besides, she might run away!!! Unfortunately for my mom, we also put food and water outside. She never did run away. The neighbors never seemed to mind.

NOW: When I want to take Tippy for a walk, like around my quarter of a mile block, I put him on a leash so as not to disturb strangers. Since I have lived in my current house for more than a year and have not met a single one of my neighbors, pretty much everyone is a stranger.

THEN: When I wanted to take Molly for a walk, like walking a mile or so across town to get soda and Ice Cream, I just let her tag along behind. I didn’t want to do anything that would prevent her from protecting me from strangers. Since I, and Molly, knew pretty much everyone on our block, almost no one fell into this category.

NOW: When Tippy wants to go outside, I let him run in my small fenced in back yard, again, so as not to disturb my neighbors, who are also complete strangers.

THEN: When Molly wanted to go outside, I opened the front door and let her out. My parents did not have a fenced in yard, and neither did any of our neighbors. Nobody seemed all that disturbed. They all let there dogs run loose too.

The lives of out children and our dogs have changed. There is nothing I can much do about it I suppose. But I don’t have to like it.

08 April 2008

Roger and Me

"Play me a song about pistols and rifles
Winchesters, Smith and Wesson, .45's and Enfields
Saddle 'em up and ride 'em down
There's a darkness out on the edge of town
Preacher at the graveside with a bible
Play me a song about pistols and rifles"

--"Pistols and Rifles" by Fred Eaglesmith

I once read somewhere that every boy needs an old man. It takes an old man to teach a boy how to do important things, like how to spit, how to skip rocks, the proper and correct way to capture a frog, and how to protect yourself against Indians. I was lucky enough to know such an old man while I was growing up. His name was Roger. He was my friend.

He was born, September 9th, 1901. Just three days before, President William McKinley had been shot in Buffalo, NY. Five days later, Mckinley was dead and Theordore Roosevelt took the oath of office.

The town he grew up in was very different than the late 1980’s suburb that we knew. While he always knew of cars, he also knew of horses, buggies, and blacksmiths. He was in his early 20’s when radio came to prominence and in his fifties when TV supplanted it. He had first hand knowledge of things we had only read about or had seen on TV like milkmen, iceboxes, and speakeasy’s.

My friends and I started visiting Roger for one reason and one reason only, CANDY! Roger ALWAYS had candy, or cookies, or some other kind of sweet treats and he happily shared with us. We would drop by, and listen to him tell us stories about the good old days while we munched away.

There was the time when he and a friend “borrowed” an old buckboard wagon and rode it down a winding mountain road, whooping and hollering, until they hit a tree and were thrown off. There was the time when he shot three deer with one bullet, and another when he caught five fish on one hook. Not to mention his numerous victories against the local Indians.

He had done it all. In his life he had been a cowboy, a pirate, a bootlegger, and an astronaut. But, would you expect anything less from a man who graduated high school in the top ten of his class? (There were only eight students).

One day. when I was about 12, I noticed a .22 rifle leaning against the wall by the front door. I asked if it was loaded and he said it was, that he always kept it loaded, “in case the Indians attack” he said with a knowing grin.

“Do you want to shoot?” he asked heartily.

“Sure!” I said, both excited and a bit nervous. I had never shot a gun before

He sprang to his feet, picked up the weapon and walked spiritedly out the door. He pointed the rifle away from the other houses on the block, into a pocket of woods, leveled the barrel, took aim at nothing in particular, and fired. He handed me the rifle, showed me how to brace it against my shoulder, how to put the safety on and off, how to work the bolt action, and and how to gently squeeze (never jerk) the trigger.

I followed his instructions carefully, and, trembling just a bit, ever so gently pulled the trigger. It was only a .22, but it seemed to explode in my hands, the but of the rifle pushing back against my shoulder. I am pretty sure I didn't hit anything. I hadn't even really aimed at anything. I re-loaded and fired at will, shooting wildly into the woods. When we were done, he loaded the rifle, and put it back in its place leaning against the wall by the front door.

As far as I know, the rifle stayed right there for the next six years until one day in the spring of 1992. Roger, now blind, and nearly deaf, and unable to care for himself, felt his way to the front door, stood the rifle upright, raised the barrel to the underside of his chin, and pulled the trigger.

I didn’t know it at the time, but on that day, six years before, on the first day I ever shot a gun, I watched Roger load the bullet that would one day take his life. Every time I hear “Pistols and Rifles” I can’t help but think of him. I never got to say goodbye.

05 April 2008

Where I come from....

One day in eighth grade, as part of a lesson on immigration, my history teacher went around the room asking each of us where our parents were from. This was the northern suburbs of New York, and for the most part, my classmates were the children and grandchildren of Irish, Italian or other European immigrants who came to New York in the early to mid-20th century, and left the city for the peaceful environs of Rockland County. As he worked his way around the room, we were regaled with tales of “The Old Country” and Ellis Island, and childhood in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx. Then he got to me.

“What about you Planck, Where are you’re parents from?”

“Jersey…” I said with a flat, disinterested tone.

The teacher smiled a bit reluctantly and asked “No, no, I mean where are they FROM?”

I looked him in the eye and, slightly frustrated, said again “JERSEY…”

“You’re parents are not from New Jersey.” He said, getting a little annoyed and staring back at me.

“What?” I said “Both my mom and my dad were born in New Jersey, the grew up in New Jersey, they are FROM NEW JERSEY…”

The teacher sighed “OK fine…so where are your grandparents from?”

“Well, I only really know about my father's parents…” I said

“That’s fine” he said. “So where are they from?”

“Chicago” He rolled his eyes.

“WHERE ARE THEY FROM?!” He was starting to lose patience with me.

“What?” I said. “They were born in Chicago, grew up in Chicago…They are FROM CHICAGO….can I help it if my grandparents are from Chicago?”

I was starting to get pissed. I fidgeted in my chair while my classmates stared and whispered things to each other. I was already a social misfit, and this little episode was not helping.

“OK, FINE…” he said, raising his voice even louder. His face was red, and he was now genuinely angry. “What about your great-grandparents, where are THEY from?”

He was staring right at me now, challenging me. I glared back at him, unflinching. This had become a battle of wills, and I was not going to break. I had no choice but to put up with the constant teasing and antagonizing I received from the popular kids, even the not so popular kids. But I was not going to be bullied or intimidated by a teacher.

I knew he wouldn’t like my answer, that it would probably put him over the edge, but I didn’t care. I looked him dead in the eye and said...


His face got even redder, his hand started to tremble. I knew he was debating whether or not to send me to the office. He was probably racking his brain, trying to figure out what he would put on the referral slip. I'm guessing that "His great-grandparents come from Michigan" would not be seen as grounds for suspension. He started to say something, but I cut him off.

“Look!” I said. Now I was pissed, and I had given up trying to hide it.

“My family has been in this county since, like, the 1600’s or something. They came over with William Penn. The town of Verplanck, you know, right across the river, is named for them. They fought in the Revolution. They are originally from Holland. They’re Dutch, OK, Dutch. Is that what you want to know?”

The teacher stepped back, the blood drained from his face. “Oh” he said quietly. Then he looked at me with crooked smile and said, “Why didn’t you just say all that in the first place."

I rolled my eyes..

"Next up, Robinson, what about you…let me guess, Ireland right?”