Friday, September 25, 2009

A Dog for All Seasons

Picasso had his Blue Period. When he was 4, my son Zachary had his White Period. He wanted everything white. White toys, drawing in white crayon on white paper: we already had an almost-white cat – an aged, Blue-Point Siamese who wanted nothing to do with him. He insisted on white clothes, when given the choice. If he had his way, he'd have decorated the house all in white. In a restaurant, he'd ask for “white pasta.” When the waiter brought Pasta Alfredo, Zach would fuss if the chef had sprinkled it with green parsley flakes.

My late mother, Alba, a one-time operatic soprano who worked for the in San Francisco Opera Association, and – as Zachary's doting “Nonnie” – out-doted even his doting parents, offered to buy him a puppy, of suitable breed, for his fifth birthday. She told my wife Cyndy and I to pick out a pup and she'd pay for it.

I want a white dog,” he said, when we asked him what kind he would like. We added that to our list that the dog be child-friendly, playful, easy to care for, small enough to handle but big enough to take on hikes and above all sturdy. We visited some kennels and a couple of dog shows in the area, and settled on a Smooth Fox Terrier. (After that experience I could identify with the Obamas' quest early this year for dog that would be just right for little Sasha and Malia.)

The breeder had just the puppy for us. At 21 pounds, he was a little bigger than the average “Smoothie” (as she referred to him), and he had a white blaze instead of his head being all black like most of the breed. These anomalies lessened the pup's blue-ribbon prospects on the dog show circuit. The breeder had been keeping him as a pet. He was already four months old and housebroken. “Perfect,” I said. There would be a slight discounts. Sold, we said.

A week later my mother wrote us a check and Zach's mother drove 90 miles down to Fresno from where we lived in Modesto, in California's San Joaquin Valley, to pick up the pooch from the breeder just in time for Zach's birthday.

Smooth Fox Terriers have a reputation for being friendly, bright, playful, energetic, a bit bossy. But nothing we read could have prepared us adequately for the eccentric character took his place in our lives with his arrival that day. We opened our doors to the Marx Brothers all rolled into one frisky dog.

First thing, we asked Zach what he would like to name his puppy. Without hesitation, he said. “Cherry Red.” Except, at the time, he pronounced it “Cheawie Wed.”

Er...Okay, great,” I said. “Can I ask a question? You wanted a white dog, and here he is, pretty much all white. Why did you name him 'Cherry Red'?”

Because I wuove him,” little Zachary shot back with unassailable, 4-year-old logic.

Recently, a longtime friend, Nicole Taggart, who devotes herself to charity work among the poor in Appalachia, cleared up the mystery for me when I related the story to her on the phone. “Red stands for the heart – love. Cherry is bright and happy. Perfect!”

Cherry lived up to his name in cheerfulness. He wagged his upright tail, its black tip a blur spelling out, “play, play, play, fun, fun, fun.” A rottweiler three times his size could charge him, fangs bared, growling and slathering. Cherry Red would always stand his ground in perfect dog-show pose, his ears up playfully, not his hackles. He would wag his medium-short upright tail rapidly – its black tip a blur – until his giant attacker would stop, confused, apparently chagrinned – calm down and exchange sniffs.

I never saw this terrier act afraid of anything or anyone except for his strange handful of phobias – one of whoppee cushions, which terrified him when emitting farting noises – of the saxophone when Zach practiced. Okay, that could sometimes sound like a whoopee cushion. But the dog never cowered at the sound of a real fart (in case you wanted to ask. I know because every time I evoke droit de pere, and cut a loud one outdoors with Zach and his dog, I would always say, “Bad dog!” It never failed to bring Zach to the defense of his wrongly accused canine companion.

You did it,” Zach would counter, smirking, pointing his finger at me. “

It was your dog. Teach him some manners,” I'd retort in mock seriousness. Nothing like a bit of scatological humor to entertain a five-year-old and his addled, along with a papa old enough to be his grandfather.

Cherry had his own scatological humor. Unlike most dogs who simply squat and poop whenever the urge overtakes them outdoors – for example in the middle of one's neighbor's lawn – he would back up close to a tree trunk and make his deposits so that they stuck to the bark, leaving them as a camouflaged calling card for the next dog to come by and sniff. No doubt this behavior amounted to a p-mail challenge to other dogs: “I'll see your wee-wee and raise you three poops!”

From a distance, it would look like the dog was simply raising his leg for a little squirt against the tree. Nobody would raise an eyebrow if I didn't use a pooper-scooper glove. If there was a lawn, he might follow by dragging his bottom along the grass for a nice wipe – to peals of laughter by Zach and any other kids along for the walk – often his “niece” (my granddaughter Fiona.)

This was a dog who did things his own way, and in a way that more often made us laugh than made us crazy, but sometimes both. The day my son was born – like my daughters – I could see in his tiny face, tilt of his head, arrangement of arms, legs and body, a unique personage – soul if you like. I have to say the same for every dog I've owned, but especially this dog. He was like no other, distinctive and memorable, instantly recognizable.

Amiable and affectionate, Cherry was his own dog – independent, always a member of the family who couldn't be defined as owned. Always up for a game or a pet or a treat – and especially for a walk – if no one had time for him, he trotted off on his own to explore the yard, take a nap, or just look out a window.

Not very cuddly, he stiffened when I picked him up. But sometimes he'd come around when I was sitting down and lean against my leg and let me pull him up on my lap. Then he leaned against my chest and let out his trademark, contented groans – same as when he napped. I never told anyone, but I discovered that if I positioned him so that he left side leaned against my chest, I felt this amazing, serene, blissful warmth emanating from my heart – in connection, it seemed, with the big heart of this little dog, not to stretch a point too far, but it worked every time.

In his first few years, the dog attached himself to me as the alpha, my being the biggest and eldest dog in the house. Zach was his playmate and vice versa. Often I'd seem the dog trotting around the house in a tiny red tee shirt and denim overalls --- Zach's baby clothes. I wish I took more pictures.

The dog pulled maniacally on the leash, no matter how much training I tried. He didn't seem to mind the choker chain cutting off his air supply. He would just wheeze happily, intent on getting where we wanted to go, which was always ahead of me. Like Mr. Toad, he became known for his manias – probably obsessive-compulsive disorder that was bred into fox terriers to make them assiduous, tireless hunters of vermin on English farms.

He never barked a lot, or tried to get attention, but he was a magnet anyway. Walk him down a street in San Francisco and one person after another would stop us to pet him. When I would take the dog with me to pick Zach up from his elementary school, kids in his class would whoop and call his name and crowd around to pet him like they never saw a dog before, although most of them had pets too. 

Zach also had a pet white rat. The dog with leap up and down for hours to get a peek at the rat in his cage up on a dresser. We had to keep Zach's bedroom door closed, or the dog locked outside in the yard whenever Zach took the rat --- Ratzo, a docile, friendly little red-eyed fellow – out to play and ride around with his nose peering out the top of little Zach's shirt like a kangaroo joey in his mother's pouch.

Zach also had a white rabbit. The rabbit wasn't as friendly as the rat. But he was an escape artist. One day the bunny got loose to hop happily around the back yard, ignoring his Peter Rabbit's mother's advice not to go into Mr. MacGregor's garden. I looked through the bay window facing the patio and saw Cherry in a prideful stand out on the back lawn, his ears up, wagging his semaphore tail furiously, poor bunny hanging limp in his jaws. The dog seemed to be wondering why the bunny didn't want to play anymore. He didn't know what to do. The dog door was too narrow to admit him with the rabbit in his mouth. He wanted me to come out see his catch.

There was nothing Cherry attacked with more energy, however, than garden hoses, sprinklers and faucets running water. He destroyed dozens of hoses. I had to put roll them up and hang them high above the ground where he couldn't reach them. If one was left on the ground, you'd turn it on later and be doused from scores of hole he'd bitten into to it. He'd tear off the heads of hoses with the same vengeance with which one might decapitate a poisonous snake in your path.

Running water made him crazy. Turn on the taps in the bathtub and no matter how far away he was in the house or outside, he'd fly come jump into the tub and start snapping furiously at the water until you turned it off. Then he'd stare at the faucet waiting for it to come back on, barking and whining.

This proved convenient. Most every night I'd give Zach a bubble bath before bedtime. We'd lock the dog out of the house. Soon as Zach dried off and got into his jammies, he'd open the back door and I'd run the water. The dog would run in to snap the water and, wap, I'd have him in the bubble bath water for a good soaping and rinsing. (At only 22 pounds, he was easy to wash in a few minutes. We thought since the dog slept with us, he should bathe as often as any human in the household.)

He also had a thing for the bottom of shower doors as they opened and clicked shut. And he would chase and return a stick or a ball with equal determination. Whereas a lot of dogs cower at the sound of a vacuum cleaner, Cherry would attack them. One day our regular housekeeper at the time, a tiny, good humored woman named Sylvia, fired up a brand new upright Hoover that Zach's mom had bought the day earlier. Out of nowhere, the brave Cherry sprang to little Sylvia's protection and pounced on this roaring monster. Growling and barking ferociously, he sank his fang deep into the fabric air bag and, in seconds, had the evil machine wheezing like an asthmatic at a cat show. This wasn't covered by the warrantee.

(Okay, certain of his detractors said he had “more balls than brains,” But what a patriot! Unless leashed and locked away on on 4th of July, he would attack backyard fireworks as they went off. He ignore the ear-splitting whistling and smoke and snap at the fiery plumes of white hot sparks. Grown up spectators yelled OMG! They tried to call him off without rushing into the flames themselves. Kids screamed in terror and fiendish glee.)

Zach's other grandma, Dorothy, bought Zach a female Jack Russell for his 7th birthday. With Zach in grammar school, two dogs keeping each other company during the days seemed a good idea and “Merry Jane” proved almost as much a character as Cherry, but without the manias and foolhardiness. Sweet to humans and bad-tempered to other dogs, the easy going Smooth Fox Terrier mostly tolerated her and let her be alpha dog by default. (As dog lovers know, females top males in the canine world anyway.)

All the guides we read recommended we exercise and play with our Smooth Fox Terrier as much as possible because of the breed's playful, energetic disposition. They also urged obedience training. Cherry must have read the same books and Web pages because the dog definitely took charge and soon taught us his ways.

He pulled on the leash so tenaciously I could have entered him in the Ididerot. The kids did harness his power to a red American Flyer wagon for rides around the block. My eldest daughter Alicia, a high school teacher accustomed to managing headstrong students, had him cured of pulling and “heeling” obediently along at her side. But she was the only one he would ever do that for, just so the rest of us didn't get any uppity ideas.

Even though he pulled, he habitually stayed close when off the leash. Whenever he escaped out out into the neighborhood, the most he'd do would be to trot around the block then return and sit on our porch after a little while. Once, however, he did wander a couple of blocks onto a busy street, and a kind lady picked him up for a lost dog and drove him to her house in the next town. She found our phone number on his tag, but didn't reach us for a few days, after which we picked him up none the worse for wear. That proved the first of what seemed his nine lives. (I notice that I have a fuller head of hair and it's not all white in the photos from when Cherry was a puppy. Okay, maybe that's just aging.)

One summer day not long after we got Cherry, my daughter, Alicia and her then husband John, took her daughter Fiona and Zachary into the High Sierras on a little camping trip. Alicia, a veteran wilderness camper, led the merry band several hours up a trail from a public campground not far from Bear Valley ski resort in California where she had parked the car. They would pitch by a particularly beautiful alpine lake near 10,000 feet that she knew about with a waterfall. I drove Zach to meet them in Alicia's car at the trail head, located in a state park in which dogs were allowed. To Zach and Fiona's delight, she agreed to take Cherry with them. He had proved amenable to heeling with Alicia. What could go wrong?

Alicia, John and the kids climbed the narrow trail uneventfully, with the dog trotting happily behind them for a few hours until they drew close to the alpine lake, with not another soul in sight. It was easier letting him off leash. He stayed close. The kids chattered and sang songs. Being of an age when he was fascinated with bodily functions, Zach liked to make up graphic, marching songs about the dogs ever-fascinating ability to lick his own private part and relieve himself against every other tree, one squirt at a time, from a seemingly inexhaustible bladder.

But when they reached the lake the put down their back packs, they looked all around and there was no dog. No one could be sure when he'd split off from them. It wasn't like him to wander far from them on walks and hikes. The called and called, their voices echoing off the granite cliffs until they started to become hoarse. Alicia, ever the den mother, made a plan. She knew the trail. The dog had to be behind them in the direction from whence they came. They would have noticed if he passed them on the switchbacks they had just traversed. He probably lingered in a meadow they had crossed about 20 minutes earlier.

There was no going back. It would get dark before they made it down the mountain. John would watch the kids and put up the tents while she would hike down the trail to look for the dog. “I was in a panic about what daddy would say about losing Zach's prize pet that our Nonnie had bought,” she said. She grabbed a flashlight and a water bottle and marched back down the trail, calling the dog. Nothing.

It was getting darker. Clouds had gathered into a summer mountain thunderstorm and it began to sprinkle. She reached the meadow, calling out and casting the flashlight beam into the growing gloom. “Forget the dog,” she says, remembering the incident, “Daddy now was in danger of losing his Number One daughter. I realized I was all alone out there in the wilderness, with bears and snakes and mountain lions. Worse yet, who knew if I'd run into some homicidal maniac.” She turned around the made her way back up to the kids who by now had their tents up and were taking shelter from the rain.

I'll never see my Cherry's butt hole again,” wailed Zach when he saw that she was alone – such a poignant way of putting it.

The next day, the little party struck camp early and hiked back down the steep trail, despondent as they saw no sign of the dog all the way. What chance did a 22-pound, pampered pooch have in the wilds of the High Sierras in the rain, lost in the forest, potential prey to all those bears and mountain lions, wild cats, coyotes.

But they heard a familiar yap when they reached the parking lot of the lower camp ground. Cherry scooted out from under Alicia's car, his tail wagging wildly and ran to greet them. He was none the worse for wear, other than a grease spot from the car on this white coat.

We'll never know how he passed that night under the vast wilderness sky. Swift and alert, he could have eluded predators, as long as he had the sense not to try to play with them. Most plausibly, he followed the olfactory markers he'd left on trees and rocks where he'd lifted his leg while hiking up the trail. But what about the car? I had driven Zach and the dog there the day before and Cherry had never ridden in Alicia's car. Yet he found it amid the others parked there, and had the good sense to wait.

Cherry lived a fairly normal life as a growing boy's companion pet in the years that rolled by faster and faster, it has seemed to his father. Zach – who grew up a Star Trek fan watching Voyager and reruns of TNG, and later, Deep Space Nine, incorporated Cherry into ongoing fantasies intertwined with video game stories and anime.

Zach taught the dog to “sing” extensively on cue – something Cherry did only for him no matter how much coaxing we did. We gave him dozens of nicknames – some that everyone used a lot – “Nibblick,” “Baldino” and “Dibbuh,” for example, and other appellations used only by Zach, many exceedingly arcane – including:

Chibby, Chwed,His Nibs, Nubbles, Mr. Bubbles, Nibevitz, Chibivits, Nubo Nordisk (a play on NPR's Novo Nordisk), Norvo (Ezri Teagan's (aka Ezri Dax [DS9]) suicidal brother), Nublet, NubXor (7eet speak, phonetically: Nubzor), Chubbles, Wubbles, Balthazar, Bourbus, Pourpus, Mein Nubby, Nublekamphen, Ein Klein Nacht Nubble., and Little Zukov (after the heroic, World War II, Soviet general.)

Having provided me this list, Zach observed. “With all those names no wonder he never came when we called him.” He added:
Of course, his native language, and nationality was: 'Nibbinese.'”

As the years went on, the dog seemed to have as many wild adventures and close calls as nicknames. To mention but a few:

He was dognapped by a crazy street person outside a Wallgreen drug store in San Francisco where I had tied him to go in to buy some aspirins. An old Chinese man ran in with his arms waving while I was paying the checker. “Man steal your dog,” he yelled. “

I ran out the doors and saw muscular, disheveled guy in his 30s sprinting away, carrying the dog under one arm like a football. I called out. Cherry turned his head back an began squirming wildly, breaking free and racing across a busy street back to me, nearly causing a pile up of tire-screeching cars..

Another time, he cut loose from the front door of my San Francisco flat while I was signing for a UPS package. He ran across Bay Street – a busy four-land boulevard – into Fr. Mason park, one of his favorite walking places, but was hit by a car before he reached the other side. My heart in my mouth, I followed, only to see him roll under the car like a parachutist touching down and emerge unscathed into the park. Still another day, he took a dive off my second story landing of my back stairs in San Francisco dropped, rolled and trotted around the yard, uninjured.

Somehow Cherry survived in style – through jobs, two recessions, ups and down, a painful divorce, moving. After my divorce, Zach would spend every other weekend with me and a half of his summer and holiday vacation times, and I'd have the dogs as well – including Cherry de facto on our joint custody agreement.

Zach grew up, a fine lad, earning straight A's in advanced honors classes and finally attending university, now in pre-med studies – perhaps with some thanks to having studied doggie anatomy, bodily habits and behavior, certainly with a major in comedy through it all.

Having survived all the close calls, Cherry reached the ripe old age of 16 until his health gave out a few weeks ago and had to be put down after his kidney's failed.

My daughter Kara wrote her condolences from Montana, as did Alicia from Ireland where she now teaches, along with Cristina who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area not far from me. Kara wrote me: You and Zach should be very glad you both gave Cherry such a great life.” She mentioned how she often saves pets from the pound and find them homes. “There are so many dogs and cats that get put down because there is no one to love them.” Her sisters concurred, as did my friend Nicole who added, “He got a heavenly life on earth, and heaven is where he is now.”

Alicia wrote: "Cherry's theme song had to be: I Did It My Way.”

His life reminds me of My Dog Skip.” wrote Cristina. To us, he is famous – like the President's dog, Bo. I know Nonnie and he are together: Nonnie the opera Diva and Cherry the singing dog.”

Said Zach: “When I was really young he was just a toy. Later he became a friend and a source of stability in an otherwise tumultuous world. I know it sounds cliche, but it's the truth.”


Marsha Coupé said...

Ooooooooo Umberto!

I thought this amazingly appealing pooch would live forever. I am terribly sorry for your loss. And for Zach's loss.

What happy memories I have of walking with you, Zach, Cherry, and Majane, all over Old Sacramento and the Effie Yew Nature Center. Even now I compare all other dogs to this one. He was one-of-a-kind, just like you, my friend. Utterly irreplaceable.

I laughed out loud reading your story. With a few tweaks, it could lift Readers Digest out of bankruptcy.

This is blogging as it should be. An intimate read with a tear in my eye and laughter releasing the big lump in my throat.

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you dear Marsha, as always for your moving and wise observations.
You just reminded me of two more Cherry Red anecdotes. both from Sacramento days:
One when we were hiking along the American River during the fall salmon run, when he rolled in the rotting carcass of a salmon, first looking at me yelling "NO" to make sure
I was just far enough away to be powerless. I'm still gagging from the stench driving all the way home, even after futile dunks in the river.
Poor Zach in the back seat. Poor us! Right into the bubbly bath tub went boy and dog upon arrival.
Two was, well how proud I was at the dog's good behavior while we hiked again, near the river, this time with your father, and I waxed eloquent singing the praises of Smooth Fox Terriers only for us to round a bend and there he was gulping down several fresh horse turds!
My face is still red!

Sandy said...

I didn't have the opportunity to meet the famous (or infamous) Cherry, but tho lose of a pet is always difficult.

I think you drifted from the story at times like the reference to your Mother's opera abilities and to you age as a father. I think if you pared down the story it would be better and quite salable.


Anonymous said...

We liked all the funny stories and how it was a family affair. If you don't think bathroom jokes are funny anymore, then maybe you should get your funny bone checked out. LOL Peace out, Shep5

Anonymous said...

You story brings back many memories of my own canine pets. Thanks for sharing.