I had to think a bit about the subject of this week’s Memory Monday, the animal companions of my childhood. As an adult, I have had cats since graduate school (I used to smuggle my cat Fred out of my graduate dorm room in Conant Hall when I would go to visit the family of a friend on the weekends). And yet, my husband and I have had a total of only eight cats (he is too allergic to dogs for us to have one) and one lizard, and three of the cats are still alive, so that’s easy enough to remember. Remembering all of the pets of my childhood takes a little more work.
I know when I was very young my older brother Don had a dog named Buster; he had yellowish-colored fur and may have been a shepherd-retriever mix. Buster must have been with us when we lived on Lankershim Street in Highland, California for the first time (age two to four for me). Then we moved to Pico Street in San Bernardino for about three years (ages four to seven) and we did not have him then, so he must have died. Some time directly before or after the move Trina came into our lives.
Trina was one of the sweetest-natured dogs I have ever known. That was not always the first impression she made on new acquaintances, however, or even on people such as the mailman on her 2nd or 3rd or 354th encounter with him. Trina needed to be introduced, not formally, but she needed to get to know a person in our presence. If we were relaxed, so was she. Similarly, while she would bark (never growl) at people who came to our door, as soon as we opened the door and said hello the barking stopped. No need to say, “Hush, Trina.” Until that point, however, I guess she looked pretty fierce to people. She was a German shepherd, and was pure white until she was about two years old, when a black spot appeared on her tail.
We all adored Trina to pieces, but Trina was my brother’s dog. She listened with one ear always cocked to hear his approach. During family time – conversations, TV watching, arguments, or whatever – she always watched to see what his reaction would be. She decided at one point that she was going to help out with the family chores, and her chore was to bring the laundry hanging on the line out back to dry into the house. Everyone else’s laundry got dragged through whatever was on the ground in the back yard, but my brother’s jeans were always brought up the concrete walk in pristine condition.
Trina was an “only dog” for about two years, when my brother informed my mother that the family a friend of his had adopted an adorable poodle and there were still littermates available. I don’t know what penetrated my mother’s usually strong defenses against undertaking the additional responsibility of another pet, but she and my brother returned one day with Pierre. I think it may have been that my mother wanted a “prestige” dog. His full registered name was Brinlee’s Count Yves Pierre. My father, brother, and I all snickered in secret over this unwieldy and pretentious monicker. In fact, my father bestowed on Pierre the nickname he would end up answering to – “Hounddog.” “Come on, Hounddog, it’s time to go to work” – and Pierre would joyously follow my father out to his pickup truck and go with my father to whatever construction site he was work at that day (my father was a carpenter and later a general contractor). Often on the way home the two would stop for ice cream; my dad would buy Pierre his own scoop of vanilla ice cream to lick. Pierre could have been a pampered and prissy pooch, but he was not. He was my father’s Hounddog.
Pierre loved to go anywhere in the car, and he knew what he had to get first before he could go – his leash. Whenever he heard the drawer open in which his leash was kept, he came running, his tail wagging so hard that he looked as though he were doing some sort of crazy poodle version of the Twist. “Get your leash!” we would laugh, and he would jump up, put his paws on the side of the drawer, get the leash out with his mouth and then force it into our hands. He could travel short distances quite well, but when we tried a longer distance – the trip to visit Grandma Brinlee in Texas – the results were disastrous at first. We learned that he needed to sit in the front seat, and then all was well.
I remember when Pierre would come back from the groomer, all clean and clipped in that poodle way, even with the little pom on the tail, and how fast that little pom-topped tail could wag – a sight that would wipe the sad or mad right out of you. When he was shaggy and dirty, he knew he could not jump on the furniture and he wouldn’t. When he had just come from the groomer, he knew he could and he would.
I regret to say that my family was not enlightened (at least not at the beginning) about spaying and neutering pets, and so Trina and Pierre “got married” a couple of times before we took the proper measure to prevent it. So there were two litters of German poodles/French shepherds, nine pups in the first and seven in the second, all born in my playhouse. We found homes for all but one of the female puppies from the second litter, so we kept her and named her Butch. Butch was with us for three years, but became ill and had to be put to sleep. This was my first experience with the death of a pet.
Trina and her pups
Trina and Pierre watch as I take care of the pups
We moved back to our house on Lankershim Street when I was about seven. Lankershim was a street of many dogs. And those dogs had two vocal times of day: late at night before bedtime and early in the morning when things were starting up for the day and dogs were being let out of their houses and going for walks. It was a communal thing; they had to talk for about half an hour, then all would be quiet again. But we had one neighbor (the father of the boy who took my Halloween candy) who worked until late at night, and the morning round of barking drove him crazy. At first he would knock on the doors of the dog families and yell at them. The usual response was to bring the dog in, but of course the barking would continue because there were still so many dogs outside. Then dogs started to die; they had all been poisoned. One day my mother found Pierre having convulsions. She got him into the vet just in time and he was saved. He was found to have swallowed a piece of poisoned meat. Months later, Trina disappeared. We found her after a couple of days; she had crawled under some old machinery in our back yard. My father knew immediately what had happened. He stalked off to the house of the suspected poisoner. He would not talk when he returned home. Desperate to find out what had happened, I eavesdropped on my parents’ whispered conversation later that evening. That was the first time I heard the expression “punched his lights out.”
Part 2 next week (I hope).