I intended to save this story until later in the summer, but then I made the mistake of mentioning our childhood dog, Pal, in last week’s column and I haven’t been able to get my mind onto other things. It was an innocent enough reference to provide background to the story about Curly Jean’s carrot-colored deposit in someone else’s yard, but that one reference is all it took to bring memories flooding back.
There’s something special about your first dog. There can always be a “next” dog or “another” dog, but you will only ever have one “first” dog. Pal was mine. Well, really “ours,” since I shared him with my older brother and sister, but I think I may have spent more time with Pal than anyone else in our family. At least, that’s my perception.
He was the cutest little Rat Terrier puppy and grew into a fine-looking, sturdy fellow. As I related last week, Pal didn’t make the cut to be a housedog and spent his years with us tied up in the backyard. Dad built him a sturdy doghouse and he had a fairly long chain, as chains go, but Pal didn’t think much of his backyard status. Neither did my brother and sister and I, but no matter how much we complained, Pal remained relegated to hiscorner of our world.
The reason I got to spend more time with Pal than anyone else didn’t have so much to do with Pal or me as it did with one of my unique household chores. We all took turns feeding him, but I was responsible for burning the trash, and the trashcan was out back. In the picture of Pal and his doghouse, the trashcan is just out of view on the right, but you can see it in the picture of my brother and Pal. Several times a week I would haul our burnable trash to the can and tend to its incineration with Pal as a most interested onlooker. We both enjoyed the company.
On good days, I would talk to Pal about my hopes and dreams and aspirations. On bad days I would talk to Pal about hopes and dreams and aspirations along with a healthy dose of complaining about my current circumstances. Pal was always an attentive and gracious audience. Sometimes we would dance, Pal hopping about after me on his hind legs and his forepaws in my hands. If nothing else, as a child I was quite a talker, and I have a sneaking suspicion my parents let me take longer to burn the trash than was needed, just to let me get some of the gab out of my system.
On those all too frequent bad days (seems like I was in trouble a lot as a child), my stories often involved me and Pal running off to be on our own. We’d run to the hills and live off the land, just the two of us and no one would ever bother us with homework or chores or pesky older siblings or chains and doghouses ever again. Pal treated each story the same, with tail wagging and his eyes bright with excitement.
The years passed. Pal was allowed off the chain now and then to play with us, but less often as he and we got older. There were also a few exciting escapes which had the three of us chasing Pal all over our hillside neighborhood, but mostly Pal spent his life out back and the older we kids got, the lonelier his life became. Often Pal’s loneliness was expressed by his barking, which did not endear him to my father. Dad worked a swing shift, which meant there were plenty of afternoons where he had to sleep in preparation for a night shift. Pal’s barking didn’t help and Dad did plenty of his own barking to get Pal quiet.
Not much of a life for a good dog.
Dad finally came up with the solution. He had a friend, Stosh, who had started a petting zoo a few miles outside of town. Birdland was mostly, you guessed it, exotic birds along with some cute little critters like rabbits and guinea pigs that Dad’s friend had started collecting as a hobby. After a few years, the hobby grew into a nice little petting zoo, popular as an outing for local elementary schools and families.
I think giving Pal away was harder on me than most. We’d spent so many hours together while burning the trash that somehow it didn’t seem right, but I had to agree that Pal’s life would be better not having to be tied up out back.
Life goes on. And life went on without Pal. The backyard was emptier and quieter. All that was left of his spot was the stone foundation for his doghouse. A few years went by and then something happened, which took away any doubt that giving Pal away had been the right thing to do.
Living in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, you don’t have to worry too much about flooding, but every now and then the Tioga River would prove that all rivers can and will flood under the right conditions. We’d had some torrential rain, an unprecedented amount for our region, and Birdland was being overrun. Stosh did what he could do to rescue the smaller critters, but in the end he did the only thing left to him for his beautiful exotic birds; he opened the cages and let them go free.
The zoo was almost completely destroyed, and Stosh was pretty much convinced that starting over was going to be too much. He was sitting amidst the destruction when Pal showed up at his feet with one of Stosh’s exotic birds in his mouth. He gently set the bird down unharmed and dashed off. Thus began a rather remarkable period of several days as Pal single-handedly tracked down nearly every missing bird and critter. Stosh could barely keep up mending the cages to maintain pace with Pal. One little Rat Terrier literally saved Birdland.
You hear stories about these kinds of heroic deeds. You know the kind: Dog saves owner from drowning; dog calls 911 to save family; dog keeps missing child warm until they are found. And each story gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling that validates the “man’s best friend” mantra we’ve heard for so many years. Then a dog you know — a dog you love — does one of these kinds of heroic acts and it’s as if the heavens aren’t big enough for the sense of love and pride that washes over you. Your dog did that. The dog that listened to your stories and danced with you as the flames flickered in the trashcan — that very same dog, who pooped on the carpet and barked up a storm while Dad tried to sleep, that same Pal — rescued an entire petting zoo. How could so much love and devotion be contained in such a little dog? How could we have ever let him go?
Well, the answer is hard. We had to let him go, so Pal could truly live and show the world just how wonderful he was. You won’t find the story of Pal’s rescue of Birdland in any papers. This happened long before the kind of 24/7 news environment we live in today. This column may be the first and only time his story will be told. Memories fade, but memories are also long. Pal was my first dog and he was a hero. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Til next week,
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