I think a lot about homelessness, about what it represents in our society, about our responses to it collectively and individually, about the many encounters — with a man named Charles, instance, and with Eric, and with Perry — with the destitute and down and out I’ve had over the years. And about the meaning of personal gestures.
The New York Times just published excerpts of the prison letters of Nelson Mandela. One, to his son Makgatho, talked about effective responses to poverty:
I have been reminiscing a great deal … Those were the days when you lived a happy life free of problems and fenced from all hardships and insecurity by parental love. You did not work, grub was galore, clothing was plentiful and you slept good. But some of your playmates those days roamed around completely naked and dirty because their parents were too poor to dress them and to keep them clean.
Often you brought them home and gave them food. Sometimes you went away with double the amount of swimming fees to help a needy friend. Perhaps then you acted purely out of a child’s affection for a friend, and not because you had become consciously aware of the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized our social life. …
It’s a good thing to help a friend whenever you can; but individual acts of hospitality are not the answer. …
This is not a problem that can be handled by individual acts of hospitality. The man who attempted to use his own possessions to help all the needy would be permanently ruined and in due course himself live on alms. Experience shows that this problem can be effectively tackled only by a disciplined body of persons, who are inspired by the same ideas and united in a common cause.
I left my power cord back in Chicago, so I will keep this short. After a relaxed, not to say lazy, start of the day, we started rolling at 11. OK — that was kind of lazy.
Made our way out from the North Side out to through the western suburbs on Interstates 294 and 88. Got off of U.S. 30 to continue west at Rock Falls. Right there we had the only weather of the day, driving through a line of thunderstorms that apparently marked a cold front. It was much cooler and drier to the west — 74, for instance, in Morrison, Illinois — see above — where I stopped to check out the local grain elevator scene.
We stayed on U.S. 30 across the Mississippi, through Clinton, Iowa, and on to a hamlet called Calamus. A road sign pointed north to Lost Nation. I kept going, but pulled over half a mile on to consult an actual paper map to see what getting to Lost Nation might involve. Wandering for 8 or 10 miles on country roads, it looked like. We were not under the gun timewise — we were to meet Eamon and Sakura in West Des Moines (they were coming up from Cincinnati, part of their trek from New York to Seattle) — so I did a U-turn and headed up the backroads.
Lost Nation: The best picture would have been of the road signs pointing out the turn, as the town itself (population 400) proved unprepossessing in our 5-minute visit (it bills itself as offering “small city security with big city access). One wonders about the origins of the name, and the stories that have found their way into print suggest both pestilence and a fanciful-sounding Native American tale as the source.
Me, my expectations tend toward pestilence or worse. Not too far down the road, we passed a sign saying, “Limited government under God: Vote Republican.”
We stopped to see what locals advertise as the world’s biggest wooden nickel, just outside Iowa City. After that, we got on Interstate 80 for the rest of the trip west. Eamon and Sakura got to the hotel nearly at the same moment we did (they would have beaten us, but stopped by the Iowa state capitol building on the way). Then dinner. Then back to our hotel, the Sheraton, and back on the road early in the morning.
Above, a shot from a flight from Nashville to Oakland in April 2016. I always take a window seat. I hardly ever watch the in-flight movies. The the window is my in-flight movie.
Every once in a while, I’ll actually get a half-decent picture of some dramatic piece of landscape. I was reasonably sure that this was the Green River someplace in eastern Utah. Checking Google Maps and Gmaps Pedometer, this place is 25 miles due west of Moab and 28 miles south-southeast of Green River, Utah. The perspective is looking north from just south of the bend.
From the NASA writeup: “Bowknot was named by geologist John Wesley Powell in 1869 during one of his famous explorations of the rivers in the American West. The Green River flows south (toward the top of this image) and joins the Colorado River downstream. The combined flow of these rivers was responsible for cutting the Grand Canyon, some 325 kilometers (200 miles) away from Bowknot.”
And finally, here’s Powell’s journal entry, dated July 15, 1869, of traveling down this stretch of the Green River:
About six miles below noon camp we go around a great bend to the right, five miles in length, and come back to a point within a quarter of a mile of where we started. Then we sweep around another great bend to the left, making a circuit of nine miles, and come back to a point within six hundred yards of the beginning of the bend. In the two circuits we describe almost the figure 8. The men call it a bow knot of river so we name it Bow knot Bend. The line of the figure is fourteen miles in length.
There is an exquisite charm in our ride to day down this beautiful cañon. It gradually grows deeper with every mile of travel; the walls are symmetrically curved, and grandly arched; of a beautiful color, and reflected in the quiet waters in many places, so as to almost deceive the eye and suggest the thought, to the beholder, that he is looking into profound depths. We are all in fine spirits, feel very gay, and the badinage of the men is echoed from wall to wall. Now and then we whistle, or shout, or discharge a pistol, to listen to the reverberations among the cliffs.
At night we camp on the south side of the great Bow knot, and, as we eat our supper, which is spread on the beach, we name this Labyrinth Cañon.
I’ve written before — a while ago — about the terrible early days of June 1968.
I’m a little puzzled that I could be reflecting on the 50th anniversary of anything. I’m like the old guy in 1968 looking back on the end of the Great War.
But here we are. Fifty years ago on this date, immediately after declaring victory in the California primary, and just moments after 14-year-old me turned off the TV election coverage and went to bed, an assassin shot Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles.
If you listen to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” you might have heard this StoryCorps segment, which features a man who came to the mortally wounded Kennedy’s aid. If you were alive at the time, you remember the photograph of that scene.
The segment brought that night and that terrible loss back in a rush. The most poignant moment: Juan Romero, the hotel worker who tried to help Kennedy, saw the senator’s lips moving as he lay on the floor. Romero says he put his head down so he could hear Kennedy’s words. He was asking, “Is everybody OK?”
I think we all have an idea what the national joy smoke is today. It’s not Prince Albert, in the can or otherwise.
But a hundred years ago? I just encountered the ad below while fishing around for newspaper mentions, circa 1917, of one of my dad’s uncles. The ad here appeared in the Warren Sheaf, still published in Marshall County, Minnesota — just northeast of Grand Forks, North Dakota.
The ad copy (early “Mad Men,” transcribed below) is not to be missed.
Say, you’ll have a streak of smokeluck that’ll put pep-in-your-smokemotor, all right, if you’ll ring-in with a jimmy pipe or cigarette papers and nails some Prince Albert for packing.
Just between ourselves, you never will wise-up to high-spot-smoke-joy until you can call a pipe b its first name, then, to hit the peak-of-pleasure you land square on that two-fisted-man-tobacco, Prince Albert!
Well, sire, you’ll be so all-fired happy you’ll want to get a photograph of yourself breezing up the pike with your smokethrottle wide open! Talk about smoke-sport!
Quality makes Prince Albert so appealing all along the smoke line. Men who never before could smoke a pipe and men who’ve smoked pipes for years all testify to the delight it hands out! P.A. can’t bite or parch! Both are cut out by our exclusive patented process!
Right now while the going’s good you get out your old pipe or the papers and land on some P.A. for what ails your particular smoke appetite!
You buy Prince Albert everywhere tobacco is sold. Toppy red bags, tidy red zinc, handsome pound and half pound humidors—and—that classy, practical pound crystal humidor with sponge moistener took that keeps the tobacco in such perfect condition.
One of the decisions we had to make when we put Scout to sleep a month ago was what to do with his body afterward. In the past, we’ve buried our late companions — two cats, a rat, a rabbit, a budgie — in the backyard. But Scout was big enough — 50 pounds or so — that it seemed like it would be a real chore to dig a hole long and wide and deep enough for him.
When the event came to pass, our vet told us we could have him cremated individually if we wanted. Afterward, we could scatter his ashes — the coffee-can scene from “The Big Lebowski” comes to mind — or stow him on the mantelpiece or have him interred at a pet cemetery, perhaps. Alternately, we could opt for a group cremation and have his remains buried — OK, I admit that the verb I think of is “dumped” — in a common grave somewhere.
I forget what the price was for the different levels of service, but the group cremation/common grave scenario was much less expensive. With the feeling that the most important part of Scout was not his “remains” but our memories of him and the indelible mark he left on our lives, that’s the option we chose. After the wrenching experience of having The Dog put down, I didn’t dwell on where he’d wind up afterward.
“This certificate will serve to notify its owners that the remains of Scout were interred in a country setting together with the pets of many other loving and appreciative owners such as yourself feel that their pets deserve more than the other alternatives now in practice. “Country burial” is an expression of gratitude for the unselfish devotion and companionship your pet gave you during its entire lifetime.”
A form enclosed with the certificate informs us that we can memorialize Scout in Bubbling Well’s memorial pet register, located at the base of a monument in the park, which overlooks the Napa Valley. Price: $35 or more, by check or money order. The form hastens to advise us “this memorialization is purely voluntarily and there is no compulsion expressed or implied.”
Naturally, Kate and I decided we’d like to go and take a look at the pet memorial park — which sooner or later I’ll just call a pet cemetery. Kate had looked up the address and come up with a place on Atlas Peak Road, off Silverado Trail just northeast of Napa. That meant one thing to me: It was likely in an area burned in the terrible North Bay wildfires of last October.
And sure enough, as we ascended the narrow road from the valley, we quickly encountered signs of fire — charred trees and shrubs, lots of construction activity as homes in the area are rebuilt.
The pet cemetery was obvious — the Los Angeles Times described it last fall as “an oasis in a sea of destruction” — for the manicured lawns amid a landscape that’s both burned-over and turning summer gold.
The disaster that swept the countryside also swept across the cemetery. While the “memorial garden” areas are nearly all intact, a home and office on the property burned, as did many large large trees. (The facility’s current proprietor, Dan Harberts, was among those evacuated by helicopter the night of the fire. According to news accounts, he was forced to leave their own dog behind. Somehow he survived the fire and was waiting when his people returned.)
The memorial park is clearly in a state of rehabilitation, with evidence of heavy equipment having driven across parts of the property, a small heap of burned debris in a parking lot, and a collection of broken pet headstones — broken, I’m guessing, during the post-fire recovery — lined up on a wall.
We showed up around 4 p.m. While there was plenty of traffic on the road adjacent to the cemetery, we were the only people there. No staff. No other visitors.
It’s tempting to poke fun at the many, many pet plaques and grave markers at the cemetery and their sometimes maudlin messages. We saw one for a ferret named Bandit, whose human companions averred, “He was our everything.” One memorial includes what appear to be the figures of St. Francis, the Virgin Mary and a plywood golden retriever with a wire halo. A trio of pedigreed German shepherds is buried together under matching tablets saying, “Rest until we are together again.”
It’s tempting to make light of it all, but I won’t. While my sentiments and beliefs may be different — when Kate and I talk about how we’d like to dispose of these bodies of ours when the only show in town is over, I think of sky burials or Walt Whitman — mostly, I’m impressed by how many people will go to such apparent lengths to remember these presences in their lives.
When we got the Bubbling Wells card in the mail, I was thinking Scout’s “country burial” was in the Napa area. The picture on the card looks sort of like the lowlands south of the city. The difference between that image and the rugged hillside location where the cemetery sits didn’t compute at first. But as we ambled through the property, we came across a sign devoted mostly to explaining what country burials are, where they happen and that you can’t visit the burial site because of the conditions of a land-use permit.
Of course, inquiring minds want to know just where this burial site is.
The sign, below, doesn’t quite address the precise location. In a tone that may reflect having heard the question a million times, the cemetery’s proprietors say, “In all honesty, we can tell you that your pet was buried 20 miles east of Bubbling Well near Fairfield in a lovely country setting.”
After a diligent hour or two of searching public records, that description appears to be more or less accurate.
The site is a little southeast of Fairfield, south of Travis Air Force Base and just north of a range of low hills and, beyond them, the sloughs and wetlands associated with Suisun Bay.
Is it a lovely country setting?
This slice of eastern Solano County is one of the many parts of the greater Bay Area where one can look past all we’ve done to the place and get a glimpse of the intoxicating beauty of California Before Us. That picture on the Bubbling Well card, with the green hills and splash of wildflower gold? It shows the actual place where pet cremains are buried — nearly a cubic yard of them a day on average, coming from hundreds of veterinary and other facilities around the Bay Area. What the picture doesn’t show is the nearby highway, the trucks going back and forth to the county landfill, or the jets coming in and out of Travis; but framing is everything.
How do I feel about Scout’s ashes being out there? It’s hard to say. But he did love every minute he spent outdoors, and I suppose for me there’s a little bit of resolution for me in that.
We came across one headstone at Bubbling Well that was for a child, not a pet. It says simply, “Infant daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Wm. Harberts, July 22, 1914.”
That set off some more diligent searching. From the history I can find, the Harberts bought the Bubbling Well property in 1961 — long after the date on the headstone. The history also suggests that the Harberts lived in Iowa or Wisconsin, not California, in 1914. They did come west in the late 1930s and lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, where William Harberts, a Presbyterian minister, was a pastor. (Lydia died in Alameda in 1960; William died in Berkeley in 1970; one of their sons, Paul, ran Harberts Sporting Goods here and was a member of the East Bay Regional Park board).
William and Lydia Harberts’s oldest surviving child, John Calvin Harbert, was born in 1915, and it was he who bought the Bubbling Well property and started the pet memorial park in 1971. It’s not clear to me why his infant sister’s headstone — and, one assumes, remains — are interred here. My guess is that the family didn’t want to leave her behind in some far-away Midwestern cemetery and brought her to Napa for reburial.
A couple of other finds regarding Bubbling Well. It’s actually the centerpiece of a fairly important piece of American documentary film history: Error Morris’s first film, “Gates of Heaven.” Roger Ebert called it one of the 10 best films ever made (surprisingly, no, I have never seen it. We can stream it now, and having been up there, we will).
Cal Harberts also got some press back in the late ’70s and early ’80s for attempting to establish his pet memorial operation as a tax-exempt religious institution, The Bubbling Well Church of Universal Love. In July 1980, the Los Angeles Times profiled Harberts and his argument for tax-exempt status.
“We believe any Supreme Being who puts the breath of life in you and me and these little four-legged creatures is not going to forget man’s cherished pets in the hereafter. At our church services, the congregation and I say prayers for our departed pets and for sick pets. I read from the Scriptures, recite poetry about pets, talk about the roles pets play in our lives. …
“I spend a good part of my time consoling people, telling them they will see their pets again in heaven. Organized religion doesn’t help them. They have to turn to someone. That is where the religious aspect of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park and the Bubbling Well Church of Universal Love come together.”
A random radio mention of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and its connection to the story of Annie Sullivan, celebrated as “The Miracle Worker” for her role in the education of Helen Keller and the blind and deaf in general, leads me here:
“The essence of poverty, is shame. Shame to have been overwhelmed by ugliness, shame to be the hole in the perfect pattern of the universe. In that moment an intense realization of the ugliness of my appearance seized me. I knew that the calico dress which I had thought rather pretty when they put it on me was the cause of the woman’s pity, and I was glad that she could not see the only other garment I had on … the inadequacy of my outfit did not dawn upon me until the woman pitied me.”
(I wound up reading the entire AFB “gallery” on Annee Sullivan. What a story.)
So it’s been two weeks since The Dog’s departure — don’t worry, this is not another 3,000-word canine bio — and he still flickers in and out of daily life.
For example: I’m realizing that I always thought about Scout when I left the house. How long would I be gone and how would he handle it? And I always thought about him when I came home. How soon could I get him out in the yard or out on a walk? It’s a subtle thing, but he’s still woven into that thinking, many times a day.
Walking nearby streets, I realize Scout’s absence has changed my relationship to the neighborhood; because his relationship to the place had become my relationship to the place — to our neighbors, to all the friends he had and still has here.
Twelve years ago this month, our lives changed in a way we never saw coming: A dog found Kate in the California outback and adopted her, and us.
By way of explanation: We were down in Paso Robles, at the southern end of the Salinas Valley, for a long Saturday bike ride I was doing. While I was pedaling all over hell and gone with my friend Bruce Berg, Kate went off for the day with Bruce’s wife, Linda Artel, and some of her friends for a visit to the Carrizo Plain.
For the purposes of the present tale, the main thing to know about the Carrizo Plain is that it’s not close to anything. It lies in the lee of the coastal ranges to the west, and you need to cross a mountain range to the east to get to the dry southern end of the Central Valley. From Soda Lake, the alkali mudflat at the heart of the plain, it’s a long, dry trip to anyplace where people live.
So Kate’s group got a surprise as they joined a ranger’s tour on that clear, hot Saturday. Strolling along a plank walk on the edge of the lake, a boy in the group called out, “There’s a dead dog.” A dog’s tail was sticking out from beneath the walkway. When the ranger climbed down to investigate, the tail began wagging — its owner wasn’t dead after all.
In fact, there were two dogs that had sought shelter in the meager shade afforded by the walkway. The one with the wagging tail emerged immediately, covered in gray mud — the boy who had spotted him called him “Dusty.” The other dog refused to come out — maybe too scared or too exhausted to respond to the ranger’s coaxing.
But “Dusty” went with the group back to the ranger’s truck. The ranger tied a rope to the dog’s collar, and Kate, with the group’s encouragement, took charge of him. He drank some water and ate a little turkey from someone’s sandwich. When the group got to its next stop, a trail leading to some Native American petroglyphs, Kate stayed with the dog, whose coat was beginning to show through as the mud and dirt covering him began to fall away. He looked like he was actually black, with a white chest — a border collie, maybe — and Kate was taken with him.
The feeling was mutual. When Kate left “Dusty” with Linda so she could go off and see the petroglyphs herself, the dog stared after her and didn’t relax his attention until she returned.
The ranger had said at some point that he would have to drive the dog to an animal shelter in San Luis Obispo, about 70 road miles away. Kate wrote down her contact information and told him she’d be interested in the dog if no one claimed him.
“You know, you can take this dog now if you want him,” the ranger said, adding it was very unlikely that anyone would come looking for him. That was because the dog probably was not lost but had been abandoned on the desolate plain.
Kate was reluctant at first. She hadn’t talked to me, for one thing, and we were staying in a motel that didn’t allow pets. But Linda and the other people in the group urged her to take the dog and even said they’d keep it for her overnight if necessary. So she agreed to take the dog, who was alert and friendly but still so weak that Kate had to lift him into the back of our van.
When she got back to Paso Robles, she set about taking care of business. She went to one of those big-box pet stores, where she hoped to give the dog a bath. But since it wasn’t clear he’d had his shots, the store wouldn’t allow it. So she bought pet shampoo, a big towel, a bed, food and other supplies and brought the dog back to our motel. A woman at the front desk said not to worry about having the dog in our room as long as he didn’t make a racket. “Try to keep a low profile,” she said. Kate bathed him — it turned out he had white paws — and afterward the dog fell asleep.
Remember that I was out there somewhere on my bike all this time and had no idea any of this was going on. Thinking back, I’m remembering the last leg of the ride, through the hills south and east of Paso Robles, and making my way back to town a little after dark, alone. I got to the finish area in the town square and thought I’d see Kate, who I figured would want to share my triumph. But she was nowhere to be found, and she didn’t answer when I tried to call her cellphone.
I may have been peeved. I went back to the motel, just a block or so away, and wheeled my bike toward our room. The window was open.
“Kate?” I called. There was a pause. Then she said, “Wait a minute — there’s a … a … a being here.” She didn’t want to say “dog” in case someone heard her.
I’m not sure I said, “Being?!?” out loud, but that’s what I was thinking. When I opened the door, I saw what — who — she was talking about.
Kate’s recollection is that my first words were, “So we have a dog now?” All I remember was that the dog was quiet and put up his paw to shake when I approached. And yeah, he was a good-looking hound, too.
That night, Kate said she wanted to give the dog a classic dog name, something short. One syllable.
My first suggestion: “Richard Milhous Nixon?” I wasn’t serious — why would you do that to an innocent pet? — but I actually like the idea of naming a dog “Nixon” for its sheer improbability.
“No,” Kate said.
“How about ‘Scout,'” I said.
And that stuck immediately.
The next morning, Scout had recovered to the extent that when we went to get in the van to drive back north, he jumped in the back by himself. When we stopped at a Starbucks on the way home and Kate went inside, he stood guard at the door until she came back out. She was already, and would always be, his pack leader.
Back in Berkeley, we did what you do with a newly adopted pet found wandering in the backlands. He was skinny and full of worms, ticks and foxtails, and we took him to the humane society for a checkup. The vet pronounced him basically healthy. “He’s a good dog — a really good dog,” the vet said. Maybe a year and a half old.
But he pointed out a couple of things that he thought were odd: the little incisor teeth in his lower jaw were badly worn, as if he’d been chewing something hard, like rocks or maybe a chain. Also, he had a recent-looking incision that showed he had been neutered.
What was the story there? Had he been tied up for a long time somewhere and worn his teeth down chewing on things? Had he been in a shelter where he’d been fixed as part of an adoption process? He hadn’t been microchipped, so there was no history to go on.
We always wondered how he had wound up in the back of beyond. Maybe a week after we brought him home, I called down to the visitors’ center at the Carrizo Plain National Monument to see if anyone had reported a lost dog. As I recorded at the time:
“No,” the woman at the center said, “and let me tell you what happens with these dogs. People come out here and just leave them, no water, no food, nothing. It’s a real bad deal.” Occasionally, she said, herders will shoot the strays to keep them from harassing sheep grazing in the area. Starvation or thirst or coyotes take care of most of the rest, though occasionally the monument’s rangers will catch a dog and take it to the animal shelter in San Luis Obispo.
“This is far enough off the road that you can put the dog out and drive away and they can’t chase you,” the visitors’ center woman said. “People split up and decide they can’t keep their dog, or they don’t want to take it to the shelter — over in Taft you just put the dog down a chute and they usually just put it to sleep. But this is a bad deal. You wonder what people are thinking.”
The mystery only deepened over the ensuing months and years. Scout was sweet-tempered, well-behaved, and very quick to learn. He was already house-broken. He didn’t go nuts and chew things up when we were out of the house. It took me all of a week or so to teach him what I wanted him to do — top priority: stop at corners and not go into the street — when I walked him off leash.
He was opinionated, letting us know where he wanted to go and what turns we ought to make when we were out on walks. He remembered the routes to the stores and cafes around town that were reliable sources of treats and tried to get us to visit them often.
He was bright-eyed and handsome to a fare-thee-well, and strangers often commented on how good looking he (or, as they often thought, she) was. He was patient, attentive, loyal, goofy and funny. He put up with long car trips. He loved to be outside and walk and walk and walk. He was good with kids and other dogs and even the backyard chickens.
He left an impression on the neighborhood and on us — on people who would see him and greet him regularly, and on us as we traveled nearby blocks. “Scout’s choice” meant a walk where we’d follow his turns. “Fancy crossing” was a diagonal crossing at an intersection. “Boring way” was our walking route through the neighborhood on our routine walk before bed; “interesting way” was an alternate route through the little shopping district nearby. “Through the grotto” was a shortened nighttime walk. Past “head grabber” was the route past a nasty rose bush growing low over the sidewalk.
To be fair and balanced, he had a few drawbacks: He was a little slow to learn what skunks were about and took a couple of direct hits in the face. He was a cadge, and especially in his bad-breath old age had a terrible habit of sitting next to us when we ate pizza and panting in expectation of the crusts he was sure would come his way. He was a fiend for any discarded food item, regardless of provenance, age or wrapping, that he sniffed out on the streets, sidewalks, lawns and shrubbery along our walks; I don’t doubt that I occasionally left strangers with the impression his name was “Goddamnitscout.”
Kate has always pointed out that whatever had happened to Scout before he was discovered on the edge of the dry lakebed, he was an optimist by nature, a trusting soul, and smart enough to weigh the odds of survival. When people had happened across his little shelter, a place where he could well have died if help didn’t arrive, he ventured out to greet them, tail wagging.
In short, he was amazing, and an amazing find to make out there in the wild. For years, right up to this week, I wished Scout could tell us what or who brought him there, what his name was before Kate found him.
One thought I had over the years about his apparent abandonment: Maybe he was put out on his own because whoever had him before didn’t think he was fit to be a working dog. He had a border collie’s smarts mixed with some other breed’s reserve and calm. When he was young, he was energetic and fast and loved to run — herding other dogs and leading the neighborhood greyhound, Porter, on intense but inevitably short chases. He didn’t show signs of discomfort. But a neighbor, Alice, who became one of his best friends, observed the first time she saw him walk that it looked like he had hip dysplasia.
That was never a formal diagnosis, but it became apparent as he aged that Scout was big and strong in his front end and rather stiff and weak in his back end. He compensated. We went on long, long walks from our place up into the hills and back, and he never shrank from long flights of stairs or steep trails or any other stupid thing I asked him to undertake.
That changed, though, and in the last couple of years, that trend became much more pronounced. He stopped wanting to go on the longer walks. The weakness in his hindquarters became more evident, and he could no longer raise his tail, let alone wag it. He was done with stairs, except for the descending variety. He slowed way down and sometimes dragged his back legs to the point where you could hear his back claws scratching on the sidewalk. What might have once been a 10- or 15-minute walk took a half-hour, then longer. He began panting loudly even making what seemed to me to be a mild effort. He became incontinent and for the first time started leaving dumps on the floor with enough regularity that we’d have to remind ourselves to watch for them if we got up in the middle of the night. On top of all that, he seemed to have gone nearly totally deaf and his eyesight seemed to be failing.
But he was still himself, sweet and most content, we thought, just hanging out with us. And he was as focused as ever on his pack leader, following Kate around the house, monitoring her comings and goings.
Over the past six months or so, we had started to talk about whether, or when, we might need to do something. By “doing something,” I mean “put him to sleep.”
It was a strange and fraught conversation for both of us.
Strange, for me, because even though I grew up with many dogs — Pooh Bear, Flag, Lizzie, Chip-Chip, Dulcey (short for Dulcinea — our mom being a fan of “Man of La Mancha”), Posey and Angus, among others — putting them to sleep had never really been a consideration. Nature or high-speed traffic intervened to shorten the lives of virtually all of them. For instance: Pooh Bear, our first dog, a beautiful springer spaniel mix, lay down and died at Mom’s feet after her treatment for heartworm.
And fraught, obviously, because here we were, Scout’s people, pondering ending a life that he couldn’t tell us he was enjoying or not. We wanted to do the best we could by this noble, dear creature and do it with the understanding that we were on our own in making it.
One thing Kate and I agreed on was that we didn’t want to see Scout reduced to a state of utter helplessness or to be in a situation that required some sort of emergency response. The week before last, we got a chance to see what “utter helplessness” might look like. For most of a day, Scout was unable to stand up without help and could only walk with some difficulty. So we decided to act.
Vets here in Berkeley — and probably many places — will make house calls for those who have decided to put their pets to sleep. It’s a way of avoiding the stress of bringing a sick or dying pet into the clinic for an inevitably traumatic procedure, and perhaps a way of taking some comfort in the last moments of a companion.
Our appointed time was late last Monday afternoon.
Having worked over the previous weekend, I stayed at home to get things ready. I vacuumed and mopped and cleaned up a little — why exactly I can’t tell you — and I took Scout out for our last walk together.
My grief had crystallized around two thoughts: First, that what we were about to do was final — very final, with no turning back. And second — and most painful for someone who has always experienced a pang of sorrow at endings — that this chapter in our lives, the Scout chapter, the story of being alongside this being, as Kate had called him so long ago, was about to be over.
Beyond that was the fact Scout was such a presence — and a reliably cheerful one — in our lives. Even shuffling along in the way he was reduced to doing in his last few months, he seemed to relish being out with his pack.
The afternoon arrived. Thom came over, and Kate got home about an hour before the vet was scheduled to arrive. We spent the late afternoon sitting with the dog, and Kate read something she had written:
“Twelve years ago, when you joined our family, you had only a collar, and your whole wonderful self. We called you Scout, and you always liked to lead us. We can’t follow you now, but our love and thanks follow you and stay with you. Good dog, Scout. You have always been a good dog.”
The vet and her technician got here a few minutes late — I was glad for even that little extra time. They set up for their procedure: They’d give Scout a strong sedative that would calm him after a few minutes, then an overdose of an anesthetic that would stop his heart.
The dog was a little agitated. He knew something was up — all these people hanging around all of a sudden, and maybe he picked up the scent of the veterinary hospital, too. But we calmed him. The drugs were administered, and he was gone. The vet and technician bundled him onto a litter, carried him out to their station wagon, and departed.
And now? Well, Scout is still here in lots of ways, but most in our expectation that he’ll be waiting for us when we open the front door or eager to go out for his morning walk. That will pass, I guess. Eventually.
“Civilization creates for me a thousand other worlds that have little to do with my senses, a thousand illusions among which to choose. It is one of the functions of much of contemporary education and politics to convince me that my choices are limited to these creations. Were there a television in my home, it would spend twenty-four hours a day convincing me that life is either a series of dangers and disasters or an endless series of shallow and banal encounters with uninteresting people. Magazines and newspapers tell me the same story. Shopping malls connected by broad paved highways are filled with objects presented as the rewards of existence–the flesh of the world converted to doodads. Big Science has had a good deal to do with the creation of this deadly alternative reality, and science has willingly lent its hand to the great effort to to convince me that the evidence of my senses and the intuitions that arise from their use are illusory.
“But there is a scientific practice that precedes Big Science, a devotion to patient and scrupulous observation of the world and its creatures. I have come to love this discipline, now known as natural history, which delves ever more deeply into the physiological and behavioral differences between my species and others. There is an explosion of this kind of knowledge accumulating in our era, driven by an increasing awareness that many species are disappearing and that we know desperately little about them and therefore little about how to save them. …”