Posted by Damon O'Hanlon
On a hot summer’s day, people in Lake County would often sit on their decks to sip tea and enjoy an intermittent breeze. But my friend Willy and I were kids, so we often thirsted for something a little more exciting.
"Did you see that?" Willy said, getting on his tippy-toes to peer over my deck, the railing for which was made of wooden posts and chicken wire.
"See what?" I asked tiredly, pressing my face against the fence. Willy had spent the previous night at my house. Staying up late, added to our 3rd grade lack of social stamina, had made us both a little grumpy. A feeling only exacerbated by the morning’s utter boredom.
"A dog," said Willy
"Where?!" I said, suddenly alert.
Mom was home, but she was in her office on the other side of the house. For country boys, nothing is so exciting as encountering a new animal without parent supervision.
But peering through the fence I saw nothing.
"You're stupid," I said. "There's nothing out there."
"Yeah-huh," Willy said. "Not way out there, right here!" I adjusted my gaze closer to the house and spotted it right away.
A smallish looking dog, black fur, brown paws and a brown snout, sniffing eagerly. Only twenty feet below, and hardly fifteen feet from my house, it remained oblivious to our existence above.
In the mountains, lots of families have dogs. Mine didn't, but there were four dogs just among our three nearest neighbors. All the neighbor's dogs were penned, but only some dogs out in the mountains are restricted this way. Others are allowed to run freely through the forest, channeling long since domesticated inner wolves.
The trespassing of this unfamiliar dog gave my childish brain a sinister idea.
"I’ll chase it off!" I declared, grabbing the garden hose my mom used to water the cherry tomatoes in the deck-planters. Adjusting the nozzle for a denser spray, I carefully aimed it through the chicken wire fence. Willy watched with eight-year-old bated breath.
KABOOSH! I was pleased with my improvised home water defense cannon. The dog looked up momentarily, then scampered straight under the deck. (In retrospect, it was probably a curious drizzle by the time it reached him.)
"Hey!" I blurted, sensing the unfairness of being outsmarted by a dog. I tried different angles hoping that I might be able to spray underneath the deck, but it was useless. My pride had been besmirched.
"Let's go down there," I said.
"Is it safe?" asked Willy.
"Sure," I said without really considering the question.
So Willy and I made our way down the stairs. Creaking open the front door, we peered around like a couple of commandos deep in the jungle. Coast looked clear. No sign of doggy.
We tiptoed outside, past the garage, around the corner of the house, where underneath the deck my family parked our dusty and unused 1972 Chevy crew — named ‘Spot’. Next to a bucket and an old tire iron, we saw our furry prey clearly for the first time.
He was only a tiny puppy, with the biggest paws and ears that you have ever seen, sniffing excitedly at the ground like there might be gold nearby.
"It's just... a puppy," I said.
"Yeah," Willy concurred eloquently.
Now this was a twist. We were young. He was young. What were the odds?
We clapped and whistled to see if we could get him to look. For a moment, he turned his friendly snout upward, regarding us. Deciding we were not in line with expectations, he went back to sniffing the apparently more interesting dirt.
Continuing to ignore us, he made his way around the house and to the front yard. Willy and I followed.
Under our biggest oak tree, puppy appeared to finally discover his treasure. He scraped at the dirt with his huge shovel paws.
"What's he doing?" Willy asked.
"I dunno," I said.
Then he unearthed something. At first I thought it was only a rock, but after a beat I recognized it as an acorn. Living in a mountain forest of oaks and pines, acorns and pinecones abound.
To our astonishment, puppy picked the acorn up into his mouth and began chewing.
Now, I do not know if you are very familiar with acorns, but I am, and let me tell you something – they are not soft. When I was growing up, we were told that Native Americans in the area would use two rocks like a mortar and pestle to crush acorns into a meal. As for eating acorns straight? I imagine it to be something like nomming a jawbreaker, which rewards you for your effort by transforming into shards of raw, uncooked pasta that jab into the roof of your mouth.
Willy looked at me like I was the one eating the acorn.
"Is he eating the acorn?"
"I guess," I said.
"Dogs don't eat acorns," Willy replied.
"This one does," I said. The puppy seemed happy as he munched noisily, but something deep down told us that his determination had reflected desperation. Instantly, we switched from pursuers to caretakers.
"I know what to do!" I said. "You stay and watch him."
Leaving Willy, I went back to the door and up the stairs, this time going into the kitchen. There I concocted a feast I was sure would impress any French gastronome: A bowl of 2% milk and a slice of baloney on one of Mom's nice dinner plates.
With still no sign of Mom, I excitedly made my way back down the stairs, balancing my hefty dog offering in undersized child hands (probably spilling a fair bit of milk along the way).
Outside, Willy still watched from a distance while doggy had scrounged a second acorn.
"Here, boy!" I whistled putting down the baloney first. Don't all civilized creatures like to eat first and wash down with libations second?
Doggy perked up, perhaps catching the scent of America’s finely cured plastic lunch meat. He approached us tentatively, head down as if to say, "Really? For me? This... this is all so sudden!"
With a little more encouragement he came close enough to eat. If you have never seen a dog try to eat lunch meat off the plate, I highly recommend it. Willy and I giggled as our new friend tried ineffectively to release the baloney by licking it, gumming it, and pushing it around with his nose. Finally he managed to create a lip at the baloney's edge, and inhaled it like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park.
Next I gave him the milk which he downed just as quickly, and even more noisily.
When he was finished, it would've been easy to imagine him burping contentedly, but really he only wagged his tail with such force that his tiny body rocked from side to side. Since he seemed so appreciative, we offered him seconds, thirds, and fourths.
If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, it must also be the way to a dog’s soul. He stayed for the rest of the day and, after some parental convincing, for many years to come. My dad took the irksome liberty of naming him Truce — which was his creative solution to the ongoing family war that had become of ‘What shall we name the dog?’
After all these years, I can still remember when I would come home from the karate school, grab a drink, and then collapse into the recliner to watch censored TBS episodes of Sex in the City (in my defense; the only thing on economy cable at 11 o'clock at night). Truce would come and sit on my feet, happier and more content than any other place he could've been in the whole world.
He never outgrew his mismatched proportions. "Look at the size of those paws!" was a common refrain when we would introduce him to new people. Over the years we surmised that he was probably abandoned by a breeder, for being uncoordinated and runty.
But whoever dropped him out there in the woods, all alone, I have one thing to say to you:
You’re a jerk, and you have no idea what you missed out on.