Saturday, August 27, 2016


I was nine years old when I received a note from Santa Claus in my Christmas stocking, telling me I was old enough to have a puppy. My parents took me to a pet store on our next trip to Fort Wayne, and I picked out a frisky border collie pup. As it turned out, "Scamp" (named after the comic strip offspring of Lady and the Tramp) was a little too frisky. Santa was wrong. I was not old enough to have a puppy—at least not a puppy like this one.

He was impossible to housebreak, and he chewed everything he could get his teeth into—shoes, furniture, toys. He was too much for even my mother to handle, and if she couldn't control him, I didn't have a chance. That summer, while I was away in Fort Wayne visiting grandparents and aunts, Scamp went away, too—to a farm where he had lots of room to run and play. At least that's what my mother told me. I believed her story then, and I prefer to believe it now. I like to think that Scamp had a long, happy life on that farm, chasing cows and chickens and chewing up everything in sight.

By the end of that summer I had a new brother, which may help to explain my mother's impatience with my mischievous puppy. It was pretty cool having a little brother, but what I really wanted was a dog. There were a number of short-term, smaller pets: a succession of cats that stayed briefly and moved on, a series of short-lived hamsters and even shorter-lived goldfish. There was even a white mouse. My mother adamantly refused to allow it inside the house, and so it spent its brief life in a cage in the mud room off our kitchen.

I still wanted a dog.

I had just started my freshman year of high school when our family moved from a quiet little town in Indiana to a densely-populated suburb of Chicago. I went from a small school where I knew just about everyone to an enormous campus where I didn't know a soul. I was miserable and felt like I didn't have a friend in the world. My parents took me to the local animal shelter to pick out a puppy, thinking that might help. It did.

According to the shelter, he was a "collie mix." The veterinarian who gave him his shots said he was a "shepherd mix." He must have been a "golden retriever mix" too, because he grew up to look just like one. I named him "Scamp." When it came to naming dogs, I was not very creative.

When he was a puppy, he slept with me, right next to my head. Unlike the first Scamp, he was easily housebroken, and would wake me up in the night if he needed to be put on the floor to use his papers. One night when he was unable to wake me up, he had no choice but to jump. I woke up when I heard him crash head-first into the wastebasket next to my bed.

He started out as my dog, but it wasn't long before he was a member of the family. When the family sat together in the living room watching TV, he would make the rounds from one of us to another, sitting down next to our chairs and giving us a paw to hold. No one ever taught him that; it was just something he did. I did teach him a few things—sit, heel, stay—but it was my mother who taught him good manners. During dinner, he would lie patiently outside the doorway to the dining room, nose between paws, watching us, never moving until we finished our dinner and my mother called him into the dining room to inhale any food we had dropped on the floor. And if he was good (and he was almost always good), she would also give him a plate of scraps. No wonder he adored her. (And she, though she would never admit it, adored him as well.)

Once, I took him to the park and let him off his leash. He took off like a shot, and before I knew it he had run the length of a football field. For a moment I panicked, thinking I had lost him. But when I called him, he immediately came running back to me. I should have known he would never run away. When, as a puppy, he somehow escaped from our fenced-in back yard, he went around to the front door and scratched until we let him in.

He wasn't perfect. He had his faults. He barked—though not to excess, and not at the things most dogs bark at. (The things that upset him most were windshield wipers, slide projections of family photos, and for some strange reason, grapefruit rinds.) When the neighbor's Pomeranian barked at him through the fence, Scamp did not bark back; he just peed on it. He was overprotective, and bit a couple of people who made the mistake of coming into the house or yard before we secured him. Fortunately, there were no lawsuits.

He had a congenital heart defect, which we did not discover until he began having seizures while I was away at college. When I found out that my parents had to have him put to sleep, I cried. Like I said, he wasn't perfect, but he was about as close to perfect as a dog could be. There could never be another like him.

I suppose that's why I have never wanted another dog.

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