Watoga Park Foundation
This edition of the Watoga Trail Report is dedicated to the folks at the Pocahontas County Humane Society for their hard work and dedication in making the lives of abandoned and discarded pets immeasurably better.
Mankind’s Best Friend
The Story of the Dog – Part 1
I can pinpoint the precise moment when I first felt a deep and abiding love and respect for dogs. I was 13 years old, and I had just witnessed the first of many horrendous acts of cruelty that I would see in a life that has taken me to many different locales and cultures.
I would learn soon enough that people can be exceptionally kind, even heroically altruistic. But I was also to see firsthand that some people have an unlimited capacity for violence and inhumanity.
Like most young children, I had always wanted a puppy to play with and to be my pal. I imagined myself exploring the woods and fields with a friend of unfaltering loyalty. And, as I was to learn, something like that usually comes with four legs.
But living as my sister and I did after our mother died, foster homes rarely allowed that experience. Much that is taken for granted by most youngsters, is put on hold by children who are shuffled from one home to another.
I lived for a short period of time with a family on a small farm in southern Ohio. By any standard applied, these folks were poor – it was the early 1960s and government food commodities made up the bulk of the meals placed on the table in that household.
This family consisted of three girls and four boys ranging from about eight to 17 years of age; the oldest, a tall strapping lad, fresh out of high school.
The mother, who seemed old to me then, was a hardworking and kind woman who may have aged prematurely, living and raising children in such hardscrabble conditions.
The father was stern and a man of few words, which were generally reserved for barking out orders to his wife and children. My foster-child radar told me to avoid him and the oldest boy, if possible.
One warm Sunday afternoon in August found the entire clan, myself included, assembled along the length of the long wooden porch seeking respite from the heat. Up the dusty dirt road came a long-legged hound dog heading straight for the porch, head down and tail wagging.
The smaller children became immediately excited, calling to the dog and urging it toward us. One of the little girls jumped off of the porch and ran out to greet the kindly old dog, putting her arms around his neck and hugging him. The hound was wagging his tail, clearly loving the attention.
It was like a scene out of the Waltons until the older boy ran over to the margins of the garden, grabbing a handful of rocks. He ordered the little girl to get back on the porch. Neither parent objected, the meek mother retreated to the house as if she knew what was about to happen. The indifferent father just looked on.
It happened so fast I had no time to respond; having never seen this type of behavior toward a helpless creature before. He pelted that dog with one rock after the other; the ones that hit their target caused the dog to wail in pain.
I felt a mixture of outrage and fear, a common feeling when one is young and in a terrifying situation for which there is no adequate frame of reference.
The dog retreated back to the road, and I wondered if I was the only one that realized the perversity of the situation.
Looking at the other children I saw that some were crying and others, mostly the boys, were stoic under the stern gaze of their older brother. It was obvious they feared retribution if they showed any emotion or spoke out.
The brutal lout, now bored, jumped on a bicycle and without a word headed down the road. In his absence, the other kids and I felt safe in luring the dog back to the house with scraps of food.
Like most dogs in the area, he did not have a collar, let alone a name tag, so we named him Sam right there on the spot.
Sam loved the attention, but we feared the return of his tormentor. We put Sam in the barn as the bully generally didn’t go anywhere near work. We gave him food and water and made a bed for him by placing a burlap sack on some straw in the mule’s stall. In our young naïve minds, we thought that we could protect him.
I was awoken the next morning by the cries of the youngest girl from outside the window. She was screaming at the top of her lungs, “Please don’t take Sam, please don’t take Sam.”
I burst out through the screen door barefoot, still not comprehending what was going on. I saw the sobbing girl looking out across the creek at her brutish brother dragging Sam up the hill with a barnyard rope tied around his neck. In his other hand was a shotgun.
As they disappeared into the thick woods I noticed the father sitting undisturbed on the front porch preparing to roll a cigarette. In less time than it took the old man to finish rolling that cigarette, I heard the gun go off, followed by the gut-wrenching sound of Sam screaming. Then all was suddenly quiet.
A short while later the sadistic boy returned with the gun and disappeared into the house.
As if nothing had happened the old man ordered “us youngins” to get out there and weed that garden. As an afterthought he told us to fetch him a watermelon when we were done weeding, adding, “and get a ripe one this time.”
That afternoon was even hotter than the previous one, so once again we all found our way to the porch. No one said a word; everyone was alone in their own thoughts, and I could easily imagine what those might have been.
I wondered if the little ones were traumatized, the youngest girl seemed to be staring at something on the hillside across the creek. The bully was sitting with his back against the wall at the far end of the porch from me; occupied with a small transistor radio that apparently wasn’t working.
The little girl suddenly let out a shriek of joy; we all looked in the direction of her gaze. Sam, with a short section of rope hanging from his neck, was limping across the creek and heading in our direction. His left rear leg was a bloody mass of flesh. Despite his pain, he was heading straight to the little girl.
What I did next was devoid of thought; it was an impulse so primitive it had no rationality whatsoever. The instant the vacuous tyrant stood up I lowered my head and charged across the porch ramming my head directly into his solar plexus.
Caught totally off guard, his feet lifted from the surface of the wooden planks, and he launched off the porch. Landing on his back forced the remaining air out of his lungs. For a few moments he lay there gasping, not yet fully comprehending what had happened.
Knowing full well I was about to get pummeled by this monster, I jumped on his chest and looked down into his evil eyes. I got in one good punch before the inevitable. He flipped me over onto my back and proceeded to pound the #@&% out of me.
Surprisingly, it was the quiet and meek mother who jumped into the fray and ordered him to stop beating me – the others just looked on. I had underestimated her, she commanded her son to leave until he could behave himself. In an unfaltering and strong voice, she shouted, “And if you touch that dog again it will be you who will be getting a beating.”
Shortly after this unsavory experience, I left this family, but I heard that Sam recovered, and though lame in the injured leg, stayed with the family until he died.
I also learned some years later that the boy, an adult by then, was jailed for battering his wife and children. It was not surprising news.
As I consider that brutal man, it strikes me that Sam, a dog, had a far greater capacity for unconditional love and courage than he would ever know.
The next Watoga Trail Report will explore how humans and dogs came to be friends. The many breeds of the modern dog are a result of a relationship between human and wolves that began some 40,000 years ago. They serve us and sometimes save our lives. They are without a doubt one of the greatest friends we have in the animal world.
From the mountain trails of Watoga,