One of the many dangers of being a writer is the tendency to state the obvious and claim it as yours. I’m afraid this is exactly what I’m doing here, because the debt we owe dogs is so profound and so easily seen that it hardly needs remarking on.
But every once in a while, you have to just come right out and say something, if only because it has gnawed away at your insides for so long, insisting to get out. And so it is about dogs, specifically Ruby, the little black foundling Tracy and I are privileged to have in our house and our lives.
She is, as you may have noticed on our Facebook pages, as much a member of our little family as either of us, and in a way even more so because she has two people to take care of, and we have only one, her.
It’s that way with all dogs, I suspect. I know it was with the other dogs in my life. The first dog I had as a boy was a black dachshund named Chute, short for “parachute,” because my father was an airborne trooper when we got him in Germany in 1955. He was, as most dogs are if you listen to their owners or spend any time at all with them, extraordinary.
We lived in Oberammergau, Germany at the time, quite literally on the side of a mountain. Next to the apartment building where we lived was a dirt track along which German farmers led their cows to pasture in the mornings and home at night. I can still remember the clanging of the bells around their necks every morning. In the evening, when you heard their bells, you knew it was just about the time you would hear the bugler blow “Retreat” as the flag at the little Army post where we were stationed was lowered.
The cow pasture behind our house took up the lower eighth (or so) of the mountain, and it was the first place my brother Frank and I went nearly every day with Chute. We would take off from the pasture and explore the rest of the mountain, largely wooded until you reached a tree-line near the top, above which were fields of scree and the distinctive rocky peak—or in this case, ridgeline—of an Alp.
Yeah, I can hear you now, saying to yourself, my God, he lived on an Alp! Yes, indeed we did, but it’s more accurate to say that Chute lived on the Alp, and we followed him as he explored the wonders of the mountainside. In the summers, we would usually start off the morning by leading one of the German draught horses, which were also pastured up there, over to a tree stump and climb up on them and take a “ride.” This usually amounted to sitting on their broad backs as they grazed, but occasionally we would call to Chute and he would trot over, and we would tell him, “Get’em, Chute!” and he would bark and scamper around the horse’s legs until they would walk slowly across the pasture if only to get away from our bothersome little dachshund.
After we lost interest in “riding” the draught horses, we would follow Chute into the woods, or I should say, we would follow Chute’s bark into the woods while he ran up ahead chasing the roe deer that lived on the mountain. They were small and incredibly agile, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that Frank and I got an education in mountaineering when we followed Chute as he tracked the deer up the side of the mountain.
The one place Chute didn’t go with us in the winter was to the ski slopes on the mountain across the valley from us, and that was only because they didn’t allow dogs up there. He followed us everywhere else. There was so much snow every year that the town avoided plowing by simply cutting snow-steps in the accumulated snowpack in the village down to the doors of the shops along the streets. If you walked through the village in mid-winter, you were looking directly into second story windows, that’s how deep it was.
Chute adapted to these conditions by learning to “porpoise” through the snow drifts. He would leap into a drift and disappear and then emerge a few feet away, surfacing from the snow like a porpoise from the water, and disappear again. He could do this all day and often did as we dragged our sleds up the side of the mountain in the winter and flew down the deep impressions left by logs that were dragged down to sawmills behind teams of draught horses. Chute would porpoise his way up the mountain and then ride down with us on our sleds.
We left Germany in 1958 and moved back to the states and lived on various Army posts around the country. I left home at 18 and saw Chute only when I visited home. He lived for 16 years. The last time I saw him, my parents were living at Fort Leavenworth, where Chute and Frank and I had lived in the early 1960s. He was old by then, and a little feeble, but I remember that every time I left the house, he would follow me, tail wagging, hoping I would take him with me like I did when I was a boy, into the woods just west of the post where he would chase rabbits and dig ground hog holes and follow Frank and me as we explored new wildernesses which would come to include our teenage years.
Finally one day, I took Chute with me on a walk along a trail through the woods where we used to go when we were both much younger. At first Chute took off, sniffing and exploring and doing a pretty good imitation of the young dog he once was. Then, after about two or three miles, he just sat down, exhausted, and gave me this look that said, as much as I would love to, I can’t go even one more step. So I picked him up and carried him. His ears went back up and his nose started twitching, and I looked at his face, and there under my arm, he was a kid again, as happy as he had ever been when the world was new to us, every single day.
I had other dogs, notably a white German shepherd named Bo Diddley, and two dachshunds named Zip and Zero. I moved away and made up my mind I wouldn’t have any pets anymore, making the excuse that I was getting older and I didn’t have either the time or energy.
Then I met Tracy Harris, and she had a little black rescue dog named Ruby. I’ll make a longer story short by saying that it took me a while to come to my senses about both Tracy and Ruby, but one day I did, and now the three of us live together in The Springs, an area on the east end of Long Island that is as wonderful for dogs as it is for humans.
At first, I thought it would take me a while to adapt to Ruby, but it wasn’t long before I realized that I was the one being adapted to. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Ruby studied me like I was on display in a zoo, watching everything I did and moving slowly into my life until she had seamlessly become a part of me. Tracy and I have noticed that she has Tracy things that she does, and Lucian things, and they are completely separate and distinctive to each of us.
At night, she burrows beneath the covers and curls up next to my legs in bed and turns herself into what we have come to call “the lump.” In the mornings, she sleeps at the foot of Tracy’s side until she decides it’s time for me to get motivated and take her on our daily journey by foot and by car to either the Spanish deli or the One Stop Market to get the paper. In order to make this happen, she does what we call mongling, a special set of affectionate but insistent moves with her body and her head to get me moving. She slithers up my body on her belly until her chin reaches my chin and then she takes exactly two expertly aimed licks of my cheek, and then she flops onto her back with all four feet in the air, expertly balanced along my body, looking into my eyes upside down as if to say, “I’m going to stay just like this pressing my back into your bladder until you get your ass up and take me to the car and go get the damn paper.”
If I don’t move quickly enough, she goes directly into an entirely different sort of mongling of Tracy, walking over to her upright and then diving her head upside down into Tracy and burrowing under her side, pushing off with her feet as if she’s trying to move her off the bed.
The biggest job Ruby has, other than being delightful, is keeping the three of us together. This involves being on constant alert to make sure that if we go somewhere, she goes too. A couple of times, before we had moved in together and I was living in Sag Harbor, Tracy and I went out to dinner and left her in the house on Rogers Street. Once, she pushed out a loose pane of glass in the bedroom and went out the tiny opening, trying to chase us down the street. Another time, she went upstairs and jumped out an open second story window to the ground and waited unhappily on the back porch, overseen by some watchful neighbors until we returned.
I fixed those areas of egress, and we thought we had successfully contained her, and then there came the time when utterly frustrated, she dug with her paws and chewed the base of the back door until she had opened a hole nearly big enough to crawl through. When we got home, I had a look at the severely damaged door and opened my mouth to say, “this is not working,” but only managed to get out “this is not…” before I came to my senses and went downstairs to the basement and got a piece of wood and sawed it to the right size and screwed it to the bottom of the door.
It had come to me, at last, that whatever wasn’t working was within me, not Ruby.
And so here we are, the three of us together at last, and every morning it’s my job to take Ruby with me to get the paper because Ruby has made it abundantly clear that she doesn’t want to be left behind, even if only one of us leaves the house. In the car, Ruby has a spot with her front feet on the armrest between the front seats, her back feet resting on the backseat, where she can scan the windshield for dogs. I’ve come to understand that this is a big, important part of her day, patrolling the neighborhood for other dogs, as if, even from the car, she is able to let them know she is on station, guarding her turf.
It’s hers, Springs Fireplace Road, as much as the pasture and the mountain was Chute’s, as much as my acre of North Haven was Bo’s, as much as the farmland where the chickens pecked in Tennessee was Zip’s and Zero’s.
See, that’s the thing about dogs. They move into your life and take over because there are empty parts of you that you might not know about, but they do. They find the holes in your soul and fill them with nuzzling and mongling and burrowing and porpoising and scampering and playing and guarding and licking and peering into your eyes until you see what they see. Ruby is a dog, but she knows something she insists we learn, that within each of us there the is the capacity to love, which makes all of us, dogs and humans, alive.