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28 DOG YEARS

CHAPTER ONE

    Spring always comes suddenly in Mississippi. One moment everything is gray, and the next moment the first tentative leaves and buds appear, and then there is an eruption of green, not the deep, lush emerald of mid-summer or the tired, dusty green of the late summer, but the bright, exciting, vibrant green of spring. The spring of 1957 was no different. My sister Jo-Jo had been born in February and I would turn four in June. Somewhere between these two events we got Scrappy.

When we got Scrappy our family lived on Leflore Street in Greenwood, Mississippi, only four blocks from the Greenwood-Leflore County Hospital where Jo-Jo and I had been born and three blocks from the Yazoo River. Scrappy was the runt of his litter and had already received his name because he was so small that he was no bigger than a handful of table scraps. Fittingly, he was fed table scraps most of his life, and prophetically, he was forever getting into scraps with other dogs.

I can’t say for sure, but Scrappy’s arrival in our lives may have had something to do with Jo-Jo’s birth. It may have been an attempt to keep me from being underfoot all the time. After all, Momma didn’t work outside of the home, we had no TV, and I didn’t read very well yet. I was used to being read to whenever the whim struck me or I wasn’t playing. Scrappy was a perfect playmate.

Scrappy was small when we got him and of completely indeterminate breeding; but he grew quickly as dogs do, much more quickly than little boys, and soon reached maturity. When fully grown Scrappy was shaped just like a Vienna sausage with short, stubby legs, a long, pointed tail, and floppy ears. He was mostly white (when not dirty, which was often) with a few black and brown patches, mostly on his back. But his most striking feature was his face. Scrappy’s left eye was a perfectly normal brown eye, but his right eye was completely white except for the pupil. I don’t know if he had no iris or if it was white like the cornea. To add to the whole effect, Scrappy had a brown ear over his white eye and a white ear over his brown eye and a moist, black nose in the middle of his face. Some people thought this made him look slightly confused all the time; some people thought it just made him look stupid. But Scrappy was not stupid, even if he was frequently rash.

As evidence of his intelligence, Scrappy would always stop and look both directions before crossing the street. Whether he learned that from me or I learned it from him, I’ll never know, but he always did it. This was a good thing for Scrappy went with me wherever I went, and we were often crossing the street to play with Gail and Gary who lived directly across our street or going down the street to Penny’s, a teenaged girl who would watch me if Momma needed to run an errand without me tagging along. Incidentally, it was Gail and Gary who first told me that everyone dies someday. I was appalled and immediately ran home to confirm this with Momma. She assured me that the information I had received was correct but comforted me by telling me that chances were good that neither I nor anyone I knew was likely to pass away any time soon. That was re-assuring, but I spent several days rather concerned about the whole concept.

Scrappy and I also spent many an afternoon lolling in a patch of clover under the warm summer sun. As boys and dogs are wont to do, I would lie on my back and stare at clouds drifting lazily across the sky and Scrappy would sit by my side so I could scratch his back, always alert for any impending danger, whether from a renegade squirrel crossing the yard or a vicious robin searching for worms.

Our backyard was large, grassy, and unfenced with apple trees and a swing set. Of course Scrappy couldn’t enjoy the swing set as much as I could, but he would watch attentively as I swung back and forth in lazy arcs, higher and higher.  Once I jumped from the swing at the highest point just to see how far I could go. As it turned out, I was able to go far enough to land with a heavy thud and be knocked out. The first thing I remember after coming to was Scrappy licking my face. That’s the kind of dog he was, always looking out for the people that he loved.

There was also a low wooden shed in the backyard that we used as a doghouse. The doghouse was large enough, and I was small enough, so that I could actually get in it with Scrappy. My parents were of the opinion that pets should stay in the yard, so no matter how much I pleaded, Scrappy was not allowed to sleep in the bed with me. Instead, we had to share his doghouse, although Scrappy did not always sleep there. Often he slept in the crawlspace under our house.

You see, Scrappy’s most rash quality was that if one or two, or even five, strange dogs so much as came down Leflore Street, much less into our yard, he would immediately single out the largest dog and attack him without batting an eye. Whether this was to protect his family (us), to protect his territory, or just some innate character flaw, we never knew, but he was garrulous. Despite the vigor of his attacks, his size invariably proved his undoing. He would come crawling, usually torn and bleeding, back into the yard and establish himself under the house. Subsequently, I would spend several days crawling under the house with his water bowl and food dish. After a few days, Scrappy would come limping out into the backyard to take the sun, and in a few more days he would be as good as new. Scrappy would have been a veterinarian’s dream. Just imagine all those bills for shots and stitches. But I can’t remember a single time that we took him to the vet for repair (only for his regular injections). Daddy would simply crouch down, peer under the house, and say something like “Well, Boy, have you learned your lesson yet?” But Scrappy never learned, despite all the times it nearly proved his undoing.

Life for us in those days was a seemingly unending string of days to be enjoyed to their fullest. Life was slower then, and the whole world, at least for several blocks in any direction, and countless adventures were open to us. Scrappy and I roamed the neighborhood making friends. Once, three other young boys, Scrappy, and I were sitting in the backyard trying to think of something exciting to do, when one of the fellows, obviously of a sound geographical bent, suggested that if the earth was round and China was on the other side of the world, all we had to do was dig a hole straight down and we would eventually reach China. We knew that this would take some time, but time was something we had plenty of, so we all scattered to our respective fathers’ tool sheds for shovels and picks and reconvened in the backyard that, for some reason, seemed most likely to bring success, eager to be the first in our neighborhood to visit China.

We began to dig furiously but soon settled into a more reasonable pace. After scratching at the hole for a while, Scrappy became bored and settled down for a nap. Our hole was about three feet in diameter and three feet deep when someone, obviously of a more theological than geographical bent, mentioned that if we dug all the way to China we were bound to run into Hell first. Excavation stopped immediately as we nervously and cautiously peered into our hole, expecting at any moment for the Red Devil from the Underwood Deviled Ham can, complete with horns, Van Dyke beard, pointed tail, and pitchfork, to leap up and drag us down to perdition. We may have been young but we had all spent enough time in Sunday School to know when our mortal souls were in peril. Shovels and dirt flew as the hole was refilled and we fled the scene as if the very Hounds of Hell were on our heels. I think the running away was the only part Scrappy actually enjoyed.

Later we decided to build a swimming pool in one of our backyards. Since we had seen no sign of flame from our previous excavation or even the smell of brimstone, we felt we were safe as long as we didn’t exceed the three-foot-deep limit we had established. So as to avoid having nothing more than a muddy hole, we decided to line our pool with bricks. With great anticipation we uncoiled the garden hose across the yard and turned on the faucet. To our great disappointment, our brick lining made no significant difference: we still had a muddy hole, a muddy, brick-lined hole. But with so many days stretching before us we didn’t stay disappointed for long.

Our days did have regular schedules between rising and retiring: three meals which most families ate together at the table without the TV on, the dreaded afternoon nap, Dad’s return from work, and the also dreaded bath. Although, in honesty, the bath was only dreaded as an interruption. With enough toys in the tub, it became just another playtime.

One afternoon my father pulled into our driveway in our white ’59 Ford a little after 5:00 PM, the work day over, and asked me if I wanted to go the movies with him. I was only five years old and thought it was a wonderful idea. Our family went to drive-in movies often, and my mother had taken me to walk-in theatres, but Dad and I had never been to the movies together. And what a movie! “Ol’ Yeller”, a boy and his dog, a classic. I cried at the end and still do. Obviously I returned home determined to keep an exceptionally sharp eye out for any rabid animals in our neighborhood. After all, I had Scrappy to think of.

The seasons followed their courses. I lived in little striped T-shirts and shorts in the summer (usually bare-foot); added a sweater, shoes, and cap in the fall and spring; and changed to long pants (jeans) and a coat when winter came. Of course Scrappy never wore anything but a collar and a few scars from his fights. Fortunately Jo-Jo was too young to want to dress him up in silly clothes. Scrappy was so tolerant of young children, he probably would have let her, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to stand it.

Copywrite 2009 byJames Gregory Catledge









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