First there was a luxuriously soft bright-eyed, eager bouncy puppy, sable with a pure white collar and bib, black “frosting,” and a white flash on his nose. Google up a picture of “Lassie.” That’s him.
Always original, we named him “Laddie.” He was my dog.
I don’t recall a lot of detail while he grew up, just fleeting moments of play, frolics at the beach …
I was seven. He was six weeks old and we grew up together. We played a lot, on that I’m clear. As he grew to full size I remember one of our favorite games was for him to grab one end of something and me the other and for him to literally drag me around the yard. He was a powerful guy.
He had a set of jaws. At the back of the long hall from the living room past the bedrooms was an old-fashioned Florida screen door. Black wood framed screen panels and the lower panel was backed with quarter inch “hardware cloth.” We left Laddie in the apartment one day and came back to find the lower corner of that wood frame nearly chewed through.
We took him along to a family get together, I think it was at my aunt Theresa and uncle Andy’s house in Sebring, and Laddie had to stay alone in a back room, separated from me and the rest of his family. He was distressed and vocal about it, disturbing the whole house. My father was enraged and punished him by pummeling him … and Laddie cowered and yiped in pain and fear.
I was devastated. He hurt my dog.
We lived upstairs and the apartment was not air conditioned, so in the summer the back door was open to the screen door for ventilation. Its shelter under the back porch and the awnings over the open windows at the front of the building allowed the hot and humid summer breezes through, and, during those potent Florida summer thunderstorms, brought us blessed cooling drafts. Laddie was standing just inside the back screen door one thunderous summer afternoon when lightning struck the huge fuse panel on the wall just outside the next door neighbors’ back door. The brightness of the flash, startling all the way into the living room, and the pounding crack of what can only really be called a detonation, not ten feet away, was indescribable. By listening for the distressed whines we found Laddie under the bed in my parents’ bedroom. He had dived under the bed at such velocity that he was wedged in a place he really didn’t fit. We had to lift the bed for him to crawl out.
He never was quite the same during thunderstorms after that.
Mom started nursing school. It was the return to her pre-War, pre-Marine Corps studies at St. Elizabeth’s in New York, which had been interrupted in a confrontation with an Autoclave, and part of my parents’ strategy to leverage our family upward into the Middle Class. Her practical class work at the Gordon Keller School of Nursing included shift work on the floors at Tampa General Hospital. I guess I was in the second grade and dad, by that time, was a traveling salesman for Gaylord and left Monday morning to work until returning Friday evening. I spent weeknights alone in the apartment.
Irma Morelock, who lived with husband Gene and daughter Sandy directly downstairs, would come upstairs and check on me each evening. Laddie knew Irma. He saw her daily … and nightly. She said he lay on the carpet in the middle of my room, between my bed and the door, and watched her quietly. She could come to the door and she could look in and he lay with his chin on his front paws, and all was peaceful. She said if she set foot inside the room his head came up and he rolled up off his side onto his haunches. If this woman Laddie saw every day and every night set another foot inside the room, the big ears lay back against the sides of his head and a very quiet, slow, even, bass-rich growl would rise from his chest. She never explored the matter further.
When corrugated shipping containers (what you call “cardboard boxes”) are cut from the blanks that are fed through the flexo’s, printer-slotters and die-cut machines, the process results in scraps where slots and vents and flaps are cut out and edges are trimmed. The factory has a vacuum system that evacuates this blizzard of scrap as it falls from under the machines, bails it and readies it for shipment back to the paper mill. That system failed at Gaylord and those scraps had to be gathered and hauled outside across Inman Avenue and dumped in a pile which swiftly grew into a huge cushiony stack in the vacant lot there. It was an artificial mountain range with valleys resilient enough to absorb the impact of a leap from a peak and it swiftly became a play attraction for the kids around the neighborhood. John Palios was a big kid. He also tended to be … rough … one of the “capos” in the local “playground mafia.” He and I and Laddie were playing on that stack one afternoon and John went to the top of one of the peaks and came hurtling down toward the valley, where Laddie was standing, tail wagging “doggie grinning,” and watching. When John ran past he reached out and slapped Laddie alongside the head. Laddie yiiiiped and, without ever taking a step lunged at Palios as he was running away. The result was two bloody stripes down John’s back where his shirt had been. He yelled and kept running.
That was the only time I ever saw Laddie respond to an attack against him. It was the day I learned what his canines could do.
It was a rough, blue-collar neighborhood with a host of characters that ranged from an evangelical Pentecostal preacher who tried to get me to hold the plug wire on an outboard motor while he pulled the starter rope to a family whose boys were expert craftsmen at building balsa, rubber band-powered free flight model airplanes, whose father was known to be seen around the house in bra and panties inviting kids “to the movies” in falsetto. Some of the kids were just plain old-fashioned mean and used to whack Laddie across the nose with sticks and such to the extent that he developed a permanent bump on his nose. He never laid paw or tooth on any child.
Mom finished nursing school and found well-paid work in the offices of doctors Hugh Steele and Marvin Miller. Dad turned out to be a fine salesman. Their strategy for upward mobility was working and they saved and looked. They found a newly-built three bedroom, one bath house on Wisconsin Avenue in Gandy Gardens, a neighborhood populated with officers and NCO’s from the air force base just a couple of miles down Dale Mabry Highway. I guess I was eleven.
It was the summer between 5th and 6th grade and I went from Gorrie Elementary to a brand new Sidney Lanier Elementary, which opened overcrowded and Mr. Lamb’s 6th grade class, along with the entire rest of the sixth grade, was trooped across the parking lots to the next-door Monroe Junior High School where we maintained elementary school days in the midst of a school running on a junior high schedule.
Laddie became an “outside” dog, his headquarters on the open concrete patio behind the living room and between the kitchen and my bedroom. The next door neighbors were an Air Force family. He was a Captain who flew nuclear-armed B-47 bombers for the Strategic Air Command, she was a Military Housewife, and the two boys were just about and just a little younger than my age. They had a female Collie who lived indoors or chained to a column at the corner of their back porch. Laddie was a “free range” canine. He lived on a diet of straight canned Ken-L-Ration which he would leave until he starved if I didn’t tell him to go ahead and eat. Soon there appeared a depression in the grass about 18 inches away from and all the way along and around the outside walls of our house. It was the path where Laddie walked … patrolled … through the night.
He had one bad habit, aside from the throaty, soulful serenade he rendered at the sounding of any siren anywhere any time. See, he was wearing a full-length heavy fur coat … all the time … and he liked to find cool damp earth to lay in. Made sense … but if he couldn’t find some, he made some … most frequently by excavating the flower beds. The result looked like a small bomb crater. I would come home from school and he’d be lying in a crater in one of the front flower beds. Over and over I yelled at him and over and over he’d dig a hole to lie in. One afternoon I lost it and I just wailed the tar out of him … screaming at him the whole time … then I shunned him for about three days. I was furious and any time he’d approach me I’d walk away. He was devastated and increasingly anxious … and he never went near any of the beds again.
Laddie loved kids. There was no way to harm a child within his awareness. He simply wouldn’t allow it.
One day when Laddie was six or seven and I was about thirteen a man beat his son on the walk in front of our house. He had seized the boy by the arm and held him as he struck him repeatedly. The boy was screaming and the man was yelling. There was a hurtling sable and white blur that coursed around the corner of the house from the back yard. I never really had a chance to utter a sound and Laddie was on the guy like a linebacker. It was all fur and arms and feet and growls and yells. The next few seconds are … fuzzy … and next I remember Laddie held by his collar and one VERY pissed off and thoroughly shaken man screaming things. My father was outside, most of the neighbors were too, and the guy showed my father two stark purple marks on his thigh where he insisted Laddie had bitten him. The ugly purple stripes were an inch apart. The skin wasn’t broken. Laddie’s canines were somewhere just outside two inches apart. Remember John Palios? I knew what those canines could do and what it looked like when they did. Those were not from a bite. They were from his nails. Laddie had basically taken him down with a punch at mid-thigh and held him down with simple domination.
My father freaked. A lawsuit would destroy my parents’ decade of labor that had opened the door to the Middle Class for our family. No one was interested in the logic of my argument.
Laddie had to go.
We had occasionally boarded him at Glenn Garverik’s kennel up Highway 41 in Land-o-Lakes and they called Glenn, who really liked the dog a lot, and asked him to take Laddie and find him a new home. He agreed.
I was utterly devastated, and lay sobbing at night in abject despair …
I never knew, until years later, that Glenn had called a few weeks later. Laddie was bereft, grieving … and pining … and my parents told him to put my dog down.
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