Tuesday, December 9, 2008
There is such a thing as a dog-person and I am not one of them. I have had only one other dog, other than Clyde, in my life - that was Angel, a small German Shepherd mixed breed of mutt. Angel was the puppy we got for my daughters when they were elementary school age and she came to be one of the family.
Angel had a litter of pups and we kept one that we named Decker - for that wild part of me, for he was a wild dog. Sadly, Decker was but a pup when the girls' stepfather and I divorced. Decker went with Bob. We got custody of Angel, who lived to have yet another litter; puppies we had to give away (actually we sold them for $5 each, as people don't want free puppies; you get a much better rate of response if you set a price on them.)
Angel became part of our family lore and I still cherish the photo of her wearing sunglasses and lounging with us on one of our family camping trips. Angel is gone now and my daughters are grown up with families of their own. Once in a while, one of us says, "Remember Angel?" and then we tell a story - like about how she allowed Jennifer to put doll clothes on her and lug her around, legs up, like a baby and never complained. Poor Angel. How she loved us!
She was aptly named Angel, for she loved us like one and took our well-being as her personal mission; not a guard dog by any means, but a lover - with the eyes of a doe; seriously, we could have named her Bambi.
Clyde the Fraud Dog came by his name due to his last-minute reprieve and rescue from the dog pound and sure death - or so we were told.
We were new to Alaska - cheechakos as they call greenhorns here - and it was around Christmas time. We had lived here about four months and were headed into our first winter, the darkest part of the year, when we met Clyde at a potlatch (Alaskan for potluck dinner) given by one of our new Alaskan acquaintances, Shelly Gill.
Shelley Gill is a well-known children's book author in Alaska and elsewhere, but before that she was famous for being one of the first women to run the Iditarod in the seventies; she writes about the adventure through the eyes of her lead dog in her children's book, "Kiana". She's a colorful personality and she's the one who introduced us to Clyde.
Clyde, Shelley claimed, was a "Newfie"; well, "half- Newfie" anyway, some kind of a "Newfie-mix"; meaning he was part Newfoundland. The reason they had Clyde, she went on to tell us, (and making a pest of himself besides), was that Shelley's daughter, Kai, a volunteer for the local animal shelter, had brought him home with her a few days earlier (it could have been weeks, but you know how stories go) to "save him from death row". He was about to be, to use the euphemism, "put to sleep". They had no room for another dog, but - Shelley sighed and shrugged - what's a mother to do? For the moment, we learned, he was allowed to sleep on the porch with absolutely no house privileges allowed.
I admit that, at the time that we met Shelley and thus, Clyde, Wayne and I had been discussing the possibility of getting a dog. Wayne was generally against it- his argument was that a dog would be a huge responsibility, would tie us down, and would prevent us from traveling. Did I say he was "generally" against it? Let's just say he wavered once or twice and a waver is good enough, as he'll tell you, for me.
"Give her an inch; she'll take a mile".
Further, I was, most likely,homesick. (Do you know how far Alaska is from the contiguous lower 48 United States?) But rather than admit that I felt adrift, I fantasized that a dog would provide the familiarity and sense of stability that seemed to have left me since our move cross- country to Alaska.
True, I am a "wild girl" and a true-blue Decker, and "running off to Alaska" at mid-life seemed exactly the sort of thing that I would do. But there is another side to me that is deeply rooted in my family and, though I had not lived closer than a thousand miles to them for twelve years prior to moving to the Great Land, I had foolishly believed that their proximity would be just a matter of getting on an airplane.
Once here, stakes and all, leaving Alaska can be a hefty undertaking.
When we lived in Southern California going out-of-state was a simple matter of an hour's drive to the airport and a relatively short flight to anywhere in the country. Try flying out of Alaska. Basically, taking expense, time, and coordination of connecting flights into account, it can take two days to get anywhere. Being the gypsy hearted girl I am, with our move to Alaska I began to feel claustrophobic as I progressively processed the enormity and ramifications of our decision to move here. But here I was in the biggest state of all - a state that could contain over half of the United States within it, a state very remote from anything I had ever known - when I met the Fraud Dog.
What does this have to do with a dog?
A dog, I imagined, in my homesick condition, would make us complete. A dog would provide a sense of family, something that, really, I have missed since I was eight years old and we moved - away from my Grandma Decker Saltsman - "out west" to Colorado - where I was to live the next thirty-one years of my life.
I was to forever miss my Grandma, although we took trips back yearly to see her. I missed the every Sunday dinners at her house, the multitude of aunts and uncles and cousins, the farm she and Pa, my grandpa, lived on, the pump where I got, in a tin cup, drinks of the coldest best water I ever tasted, the hen house, Grandma's gardens, the barn, the 'forbidden' grain silo that we kids played in anyway, the animals...but mostly, Grandma.
Now, in Alaska, I found myself imagining that our house and acre and a half of land could be a little bit like Grandma's farm. I even went to hang a tire swing on a tree, before I realized that most of the trees in our part of Alaska that had swings featured life buoys, not tires. So I got a bright blue life buoy and Wayne helped me hang it from a branch on one of the huge birch trees on our land.
You see how perfectly a dog fits into this scenario. The only thing I was missing, beside the dog, was a fresh water well - and that I was not going to get. Too much arsenic and copper even if we could reach underground water. Then again, I was also missing the hen house and the garden, but Wayne would take care of the garden part - he's a real green thumb and the hen house, I decided, remembering how dirty chickens were, I could do without.
We didn't have to have a real farm, I decided - being "out in the country" was enough. (We live 4.1 miles from town.)
Clyde, at nine months old, was big. Huge. A perfect Alaskan farm dog, right? For some reason, the idea that he was Newfoundland, even if a mix, appealed to both Wayne and me. I looked up the breed on the Internet, even went so far as to join a list-serve. Before long, I had ordered a book on Newfoundland dogs from Amazon. All this after only one meeting with Clyde, who had rushed me with all the enthusiasm only a puppy can have, and solidly licked my face. Which I hated, by the way. I hate being licked by dogs. Somehow, though, Clyde's big red floppy tongue did not offend me. His big, clumsy puppy body quivered with joy; his enthusiasm for making friends overshadowed any reservations I could manufacture.
Wayne, the Scrooge of Dog-Adoption, was - rather quickly ( and suspiciously, I now think) - won over, considering that he still insists it is my fault whenever there is a problem with Clyde (like having to find a kennel or a dog-sitter when we want to leave, even for a weekend, or like when he does something embarrassing, like barreling full speed into a 78 year-old visiting guest and knocking her over.) Within a week or two of meeting Clyde, we were on the phone to Shelley, "We'd like to adopt Clyde."
"Come and get him!" Shelley pinned us down for a time and date immediately.
We should have suspected when, before we even got half-way parked in the driveway, Shelley immediately showed up at the door of the truck and shoved a befuddled Clyde, all the then sixty or so pounds of him, into the passenger side and on top of me. I was too love-struck to notice and, evidently, so was Wayne, for regardless of how much he loves to remind me that getting Clyde was not his idea, he allowed that big lug of a pup right into my lap, his truck, and our lives.
So we had ourselves a Newfie - we thought. But Clyde the Fraud Dog, about nine months old when we got him, stopped growing at around eighty-five pounds and stayed there. He didn't double or triple his size, as we expected, and as a Newfie would. If we squint just right in the light some days, though, he does retain just a hint of the helmut head that Newfies are famous for - but Clyde the Fraud Dog is not much of a Newfie, it turns out, at all. He doesn't even drool. But he is black. He is big. Just not as black and as big as a Newfie.
Anyone who has ever been to Homer, Alaska knows- just look around - there's one in the back of every pick-up truck - a big old black Labrador dog. With the exception of his slightly curly fur and the big white patch on his chest, we suspect that Clyde's parentage was largely Labrador - the classic dog of Homeroids, if sheer numbers tell the tale. True, Huskies are popular here, due to the Iditarod, but they're runners, so most non-mushing folks get themselves a big ol' black Lab. We see them everywhere. That increases the odds, we tell Clyde, that he doesn't even have so much as a lick of Newfie in him.
"You're a fraud dog, Clyde!" we tell him.
We have to hand it to him- pretending to be a Newfie - instead of the everyday run-of-the-mill token black Lab so common around here - got him off death row and into our hearts - hey, how's that for a Fraud Dog? Clyde the Fraud Dog, we call him.
Nope. I'm not a dog person. But Clyde does have one sure Newfie trait - he's a people-person.