It is a rite of suburban passage that a beginner family, after stocking up on kids, decides to do the dog thing. Picture a toasty, happy, Christmas-card family smiling in their matching jammies with a dog appended. The presence of a dog squares the circle, certifies familyness.
The Craig family was no exception. When Hutch was two years old, My Life’s Editor and I went to the pound in Deerfield, IL and came home with Montmorency, named for a character in our beloved book “Three Men in a Boat.” Montmorency was fully grown – good-sized, fluffy and given to random pooping. But more significantly, he bounded. After the fourth time he took out Hutch like a Brunswick bowling ball sending a pin flying, we decided, teary-eyed, that he (the dog, not Hutch) had to go. We would wait to grow the family via the canine route.
Fast forward a couple years. I had taken up hunting. At 5 AM some weekends I drove with two pals in 25-degree cold to West Brooklyn, IL to eat a big breakfast and tromp around in corn stubble, slinging lead at pheasants. We did well with the breakfast bit, not so much with the pheasant bit. My Life’s Editor sensed the time was right and presented me with a Brittany Spaniel puppy. “Brits” are prized in the hunting world because they are “pocket pointers,” more compact than an English Setter or a German Shorthair, thus more portable, but they do the same things, plus they are homebodies. His AKC handle was “Gorgeous George IV.” He was a handsome dude. Hutch took on the assignment of naming him and Gorgeous George became plain “Bingo,” after Hutch’s favorite childhood song.
After I had spent months in the back yard training Bingo to retrieve, my friend Glen and I determined it was time to introduce him to the noisy shotgun and possibly the wily cock pheasant. We repaired to another friend’s field in nearby St. Charles on a 30-degree morning with a dusting of snow. We exited the station wagon, shrugged into our hunting jackets, orange caps and vests, plopped Bingo on the ground and trudged off, cradling our shotguns. At some distance from the car, I chambered a shell. Bingo looked up. Bang! The dog did not flinch. This brought nods of approbation from Glen and our friend Rick. Bingo had the “gun” part of the “gun dog” label down pat.
When I made the sweeping “fetch” gesture indicating to Bingo that he was to fan out in front of us and quarter the field, the wheels came off. He declined to advance, judging it safer to stay with us, out of the line of fire. Glen observed that we were now in danger of tripping over Bingo and shooting each other. The thermometer dropped; snow floated down. Bingo sat. He looked up at me woeful-eyed, shuddering like a bowl of Jell-O. He finished the rest of the morning under my hunting jacket, nose out.
Our move to Florida ended Bingo’s bird hunting career. He did develop one hunting skill though. Before the solons of St. Pete decried that dogs should be leashed, I would take Bingo to North Shore Beach. He would vault over the sea wall and sprint across the sand, nostrils flared. Gathering in the scent of prey, he would accelerate, then leap upon his target: a well-aged mullet, ripened to such a state of putrefaction that gulls turned up their noses at it. He would roll in it, legs churning, then scramble up and look at me, panting, tongue lolling. I knew he was thinking “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Our next dog was Molly, also a Brit. Molly came home with me from her breeder in Deland, nestled in the foot well of the front passenger seat. She was a Florida Brit, shorter haired and blockier than Bingo. She was as frumpy as Bingo was handsome. Looking back, I cannot remember why we wanted to become a two-dog household; maybe because with Peyton we had become a two-child household. We came to learn that whereas Bingo exhibited the intellect of a block of cheese, Molly was clever. She also was the better bird dog. She appeared at the back door one day, exultant, the legs of a blue jay sticking out of her mouth. She had nailed it in mid-flight.
Molly was the Alpha dog. She defended our home, barking ferociously from the inside of the fence at innocent passers-by. My Life’s Editor was mortified by the harassment of little old ladies and young mothers with babes in arms. Molly also defended us against creditors by chewing up power bills as the postman pushed them through the front door mail slot. In the crunch, Molly and Bingo both fell down miserably in their Home Security role. Two delinquent neighborhood youths entered our house via the cracked-open window of our laundry room, where Molly and Bingo were incarcerated while the family was out. The youths burglarized us as the dogs reveled in the freedom of the house. An upshot of this was the arrival of a petite female cop who brandished a humongous gun, advancing to the second floor, warning she would not hesitate to blast “any m…..f….r” she found upstairs. My Life’s Editor and the kids watched from below, eyes agog.
Bingo was the master of escape. I wound my way home through the neighborhood one evening. Bingo was in the back seat, head out the open window, drooling, ears flapping, paws on the window frame. I took a left turn at an intersection, straightened out the car and happened to glance in the rear view mirror. Bingo, no longer a passenger, was standing in the middle of the intersection behind me. He viewed any open door as God’s gift to dogs. The question of “Where’s Bingo?” would lead to a search, as we drove block to block in the Old Northeast, shouting his name. One weekend he showed up hours later limping and bruised, dirty and smelly, hyperventilating, likely hit by a car. Hutch and Peyton in tears beside me, I drove him to the only open vet I could find. As I drove, I reviewed Bingo’s ledger of good works and misdeeds. I found him wanting. I considered the family exchequer and since we were in hard times, put $250 on his head. Any more than that and he was going to the kennel in the sky. The bill was $175.
For many families, the end of their dog’s life is their first experience with mortality up close. It provides a glimpse of bigger things to come. So it was for us. Bingo, as senior dog, was the first to slip the mortal coil. On the day of reckoning, I helped him into the back seat of our car, carefully lifting his haunches. I drove to My Life’s Editor’s office, where I found word had spread and she and her office mates were sobbing. She joined me and Bingo for the short tearful drive to the vet. Once there, we held him while he shuddered and left us. A few years later, Molly joined us for a similar trip to the vet. Knowing her, she had a good idea of what was up.
From time to time. as the sand runs out in my personal hourglass, I picture Hutch and Peyton driving up to the Shady Nook Retirement Home. They will help me into the back seat of the car. It is only a short drive to the vet.