My Mom runs funny. She kicks her feet up behind knees that stay directly below her torso, rather than letting the knee move forward while the foot is planted. It looks awkward, and if you try it yourself it feels like you’re going to fall on your face, but she has it down pat. And she’s quick to explain where she learned it.
“Well, I grew up on a farm, and there were no other little girls around so I usually played alone. I learned to run by watching the cows. I imitated what I saw around me, like any kid does. I didn’t know I was doing anything unusual, it seemed normal to me.”
I know the feeling. Many times, I’ve heard others say that I’m unusual when my behavior seemed normal to me. I’ve been called too loud, and I’ve also been told I don’t speak up enough. I’ve been labeled too aggressive, and also too sensitive; too protective, too physical, too quick to fight and too slow to obey. I’ve heard that I pay too much attention to body language, and that I shouldn’t trust it more than the spoken word, but I still do. Like my Mom, I picked up some of my quirks from animals, and the animal I learned more from than any other was a dog named Kingo.
Getting a Puppy
In the spring of 1966, a few months after our family moved from Queen Anne Hill in downtown Seattle to a house with a big yard in the south end of town, Mom heard about a dog that needed a home. The dog was a young Collie named King, and he had grown much faster than his naive owners had expected. The two children, aged 3 and 5, were frightened of the dog, so he spent most of his time alone, tied to a post in a tiny back yard back on Queen Anne Hill. The mother felt that they had made a mistake in getting the dog, and she wanted to find a good home for him. She wanted no money, she just wanted to get rid of King with a clear conscience. She had underestimated the amount of work a large dog would be, especially in a small city lot, and she couldn’t handle the needs of the dog in addition to the needs of her two children.
We took him. At that time, I was 7, Greg was 6, Ken was 5, Brad was 2, and King was 1. Mom drove us downtown to pick King up, in our big blue 1959 Buick – the fin car, as my brothers and I called it.
“Doug, you’re the biggest,” Mom told me, “so you hold on to him and keep him in the back seat on the way home.”
I tried, but King was full of nervous energy. He scrambled around the seat licking our faces, chewing on our hands, and whimpering. He chewed pretty hard, hurting my little hands, so I picked up a pair of Mom’s leather gardening gloves off the floor of the car and put them on. King chewed on the glove fingers where they extended beyond the ends of my fingers, and by the time we were home he had chewed holes in most of them.
King was the family’s dog, but I spent the most time with him. For fourteen years he was my best friend, and I said so often; I never said “I love you” to anyone other than him or Mom. I was a so-called loner, but King and I never felt alone. He knew to lay by my feet under the dinner table to get plenty of table scraps, and he grew to average size for a male Collie, around 70 pounds. He had a long brown and white coat, and he looked like Lassie, but with a sturdier, less pointed nose.
King wasn’t what you would call an obedient dog, although he knew the basics. He usually came when called, and he would sit or stay sometimes too. Dad worked with him a little, but King depended more on alertness than any memorized connection between our words and his actions. Mom was the first to call him Kingo, and we called him King or Kingo interchangeably. I always had a strong sense that Kingo and I understood each other, but we didn’t always agree.
Kingo loved to catch snowballs, and when it snowed he would stand in the driveway, snarling and waiting for the next one to be thrown. I would throw the snowballs as hard as I could, and he would leap high in the air to let the snowball explode in his mouth, or even to block it with his body. He seemed to enjoy the contact of the shattering snowball itself most of all, and he would throw himself in front of them whenever possible. I have photographs of him in mid-leap, snowball embedded in his side, bright eyes above flashing teeth and extended tongue.
At first, we didn’t have a fence around the yard and King ran wild in the neighborhood. He once carried home the welcome mat from a neighbor’s front door, and he was notorious for eating dog and cat food out of dishes in other people’s back yards. A man two doors away from us once shot King in the face with a BB gun, and another old man two blocks away would fire his pellet gun at any dog that dared to step in his yard. That guy shot Kingo a few times, and I always ran quickly past his house when I was with Kingo, but if he was off the leash he would take a leisurely romp through the yard, sniffing around with his tail high in the air. Kingo seemed to enjoy the excitement, and he was never impressed by the old man’s angry yells or my frightened calls.
On the last day of my sixth-grade year of school, we had a casual party in the back yard. There were a bunch of kids and dogs and parents in attendance, eating popcorn and drinking pop in the shade. A black labrador retriever was there, belonging to a family that lived on the hill behind us. King and this dog were begging and bothering some of the smaller kids, so I grabbed two pieces of Wonder Bread from the kitchen for them. I made the two big dogs sit side by side in front of me; they were very anxious and alert, because they knew I had the bread. Then I made a mistake, because I didn’t yet understand the way dogs view a pack hierarchy. I told Kingo “here’s a lesson in manners, we feed the guests first,” and I handed the first piece of bread to the black lab. King went berserk, and within seconds we had a wild dog fight in the midst of a crowd of screaming kids and excited adults. The black lab limped back to his house, leaving bloody paw prints on our patio, and Kingo had a big smile and a bloody slash next to his eye that left a scar on his face for the rest of his life.
I wasn’t the only one of us boys who had some things to learn about having a dog. Brad, the baby of the family, was the smallest of four rambunctious boys. He had no concept of “being careful” with others, since he had to fight with all his strength to keep up with the rest of us. He would beat on King with a stick, not in anger but simply to get a reaction and have some fun. King would yelp in pain, and Mom tried to teach Brad not to do this, but with little success. Then one day Brad came crying to Mom because King had bit him, and Mom said “thank goodness that dog’s finally sticking up for himself.”
Growing up Together
Kingo and I spent our summer days at the beach, building bonfires and spearing fish, often accompanied by my friend Alan Peterson and his dog Horse. The frigid water of Puget Sound varied from 46 degrees in the winter to 48 degrees in the summer, and Alan and I would snorkel for hours on end. Mom always worried about this, and she would clip out articles from the Seattle Times that told of people in excellent condition who died from hypothermia within half an hour of falling into the Sound. I lied and told her that we came out of the water every half hour to warm up, and I remember thinking that Alan and I were genetically blessed to be able to swim in the Sound all day without dying. Years later, somebody did a study on hypothermia and found that you can build up a remarkable tolerance to low body temperature through repeated immersion in very cold water. Mom clipped that article for me, too.
Sometimes when Alan and I had been out in the water snorkeling for too long, Kingo and Horse would get anxious. They would stand on the shore, a few hundred yards away, barking at us, and after a while they would swim out to our splashing feet and sputtering snorkels. Kingo would swim past me, then turn to shore, as if trying to herd me back in. One time, I was very tired and I grabbed his tail to get pulled back in to shore. He didn’t seem to mind, so after that I would take him up on the free ride any time he passed by. Kingo may have been the only herding dog who routinely worked the waters of Puget Sound.
King also did a similar herding action with Brad, but a little more forcefully. Once Mom heard Brad crying out in the driveway, and rushed to the front door to see what was going on. Brad had strayed too close to the road at the end of the driveway, and King was leading him back to the house. King had Brad’s arm in his mouth, and he wouldn’t let go – when Brad tried to pull away, King clamped down tighter and continued leading him down the driveway. This happened many times after that, and King seemed to see Brad as his own little flock of one, to be shepherded and protected.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have many wolves or predators around in the suburbs of the South End, so King’s protective instincts were often focused on things that weren’t really threats. Motorcycles, for instance. One time a guy on a motorcycle swerved through the end of our driveway while King was playing with several of us in front of the house. King took off like a shot, but the motorcycle was already gone. Then the guy turned around at the end of our street and came back; King crouched down and waited for him. When the motorcyclist saw King, he gunned it and blew past the house very fast, but King was intensely focused and managed to sink his long fangs into the man’s left leg. The man screamed, brought the bike to an upright stop, then limped up to our front door. King snarled and barked while Greg and I restrained him. Mom answered the door, and the guy yelled at her for a while, showed us his fresh puncture wounds. There were two holes on the outside of his calf, and I wondered whether there were two more just like that on the other side.
With most people, though, King was very friendly. He did get a little excited when the garbage men took away the garbage, but that seemed more about the theft of leftover food than the garbage men themselves. And once the man who checked the water meter showed up with a pitchfork in hand, shuffling backwards toward the meter while shaking and sweating nervously. King wanted to kill that guy, and who could blame him? The water company sent out a different employee, one “with more experience with dogs,” and she turned out to be a 20-year-old girl. She parked her truck in the driveway, and Mom and King walked up to the truck. The girl petted King, smiled at Mom, and said “now where’s the vicious dog? I understand we have a dog problem here.”
That meter man was a loser, but the worst reaction King ever had to a stranger occurred in Yellowstone National Park, a thousand miles from home. King rarely got protective outside our yard, but this time he went crazy, and we never knew why.
It was the summer that I was 11. Dad always told us boys that we had to keep Kingo on a leash whenever we were near mountains or wilderness areas, because “if he starts after a deer or something, you’ll never see him again.” On our trip to Yellowstone, we were standing outside the camper in a parking lot when suddenly King started snapping and snarling at a man who was walking past us with his wife. They were just walking along, and King responded to this guy like he was the worst garbage man ever. It took a few minutes to get King calmed back down, and the man made a comment about our vicious dog.
Then we took a long walk through the hot springs. (Back then, it was OK to bring dogs on the boardwalks at Yellowstone – those days are over now, sadly.) I had Kingo on the leash, and he sniffed at the edges of the boardwalk, investigating the sulphur smells and the bubbling pools of warm water. Suddenly we were face to face with the man from the parking lot, who was walking the other direction on the boardwalk. We held King back while the man passed. King lunged and snarled the whole time, and the man made more angry comments about our vicious dog. This was such rare behavior for King that I always believed that man was evil in some way King could see but we couldn’t.
That same trip, we stopped in Forbes, the small North Dakota town where Mom grew up running with the cows. We stayed with Grandma and Grandpa for a few days, and we boys took long walks through the fields with Kingo. He loved the excitement of all the animals, and he would charge herds of cattle and snap at their feet, making them stampede awkwardly; this amused my brothers and me very much. When it came time to leave Forbes, there was some talk among the adults of whether Kingo could stay with a family outside town that was looking for a good dog, but nothing came of it. I was terrified, then relieved.
Another time, we thought we had lost Kingo for good. He got out of the yard, and he wandered away from the neighborhood. We reported him to the police and shelters, and Dad drove around looking for him each day after work, but after a few days we started to believe the worst. Then the police called, to tell us that they had located him. Two little girls who lived a mile beyond the paper shack had found him, and they kept him in a large dollhouse in their back yard. They fed him and played with him each day, and the parents thought he was just another dog from the neighborhood. Then the mother found out what was going on, and she insisted that they contact the police in case he was a reported missing dog. Kingo still had his dog tags on, so it was easy for them to track us down, and Dad went to pick him up after the police contacted us. The little girls were sad to see “Lassie” go, but we were sure glad to get him back.
Paper Route Adventures
I played with King a lot, but our period of most intense bonding occurred when I got a paper route at age 12. King came with me almost every day, and we walked hundreds of miles together over a period of two years. Kingo was an emotional role model for me, as the one member of our pack who was unflappable and always optimistic. I wanted to be like King when I grew up: loyal, loving, fearlessly protective, full of intense energy and reckless abandon. I think I learned some good things from Kingo, but I also picked up some bad habits – every once in a while, I bite somebody just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And like Kingo, I get anxious if I don’t get a lot of physical reassurance; I remember napping with my head on his side, using him as a pillow, just to be sure he was always there. We both enjoyed this very much.
I always had a leash when we delivered papers, but I didn’t always keep him on it. I knew which areas were safe to let him roam: far away from high-speed major roads, and also far away from other big dogs who were free to roam. At the nearby grocery store (the long-gone XL Sooper at 200th and First Avenue South), I would tie King’s leash to the gum machine out front, and he always waited there for me, even though he could have dragged that gum machine away if he wanted to. One street where I never let King roam free was First Avenue, the only road nearby where cars traveled at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour; we saw Horse get killed there, and I never forgot it.
The Seattle Times was an afternoon paper in those days, with morning delivery on Sundays. Sunday mornings were special; Kingo and I would get up at 4:00, and we would be on the route by 5:00, alone and quiet in the first rays of sunlight. I always let him run free on Sunday mornings, because there was nobody else on the street and most dogs were inside their houses or fenced yards.
Heinrich the German Shepherd was a monster among dogs. There were lots of German Shepherds on my paper route, but Heinrich was the biggest and most aggressive by far. He had to be over 100 pounds, since he was easily half again bigger than King. Heinrich lived on a quiet dead-end street on North Hill, and he spent his time tethered to a cable in a side yard, laying on the sidewalk near the driveway, watching people and dogs pass by. When somebody got his attention, he would strain against his chain, standing on his back legs, a low rumble radiating from his chest. I stared at the chain every time, glad that it held him.
I was afraid of Heinrich, partly because of King’s reaction to him. King was always fearless around other dogs, and he was very willing to fight, over almost anything. He was always the aggressor, and he knew the value of confident posturing; he seemed to know that most dogs would back down rather than take on a big dog who was clearly nuts.
King never made an aggressive motion or sound around Heinrich, even when Heinrich was foaming at the mouth. This scared me almost as much as Heinrich’s low rumble itself.
King always strolled boldly up Heinrich’s driveway and moved with quick confidence, staying a respectful few yards from the range of the chain. Heinrich snarled and snapped viciously, but King never looked at him or barked back. One time Heinrich’s food dish was on the doorstep, beyond his range, and King wolfed down a few mouthfuls of dry food while Heinrich exploded with rage, standing up against the chain’s pull and snarling like an angry man.
One Sunday morning, Kingo and I walked up Heinrich’s driveway in the pre-dawn twilight like dozens of times before. Heinrich lay in his usual spot at the edge of the house, and he started his usual low rumble when he saw us approach. I walked up the driveway, but King suddenly stopped and stood still, watching Heinrich. Heinrich stared back and slowly stood up, back legs first, rumbling all the while. After he stood up, I realized what both of them already knew: today, for the first time ever, Heinrich wasn’t chained up. His chain clasp lay on the sidewalk nearby, and he was a free dog, huge and rumbling and staring at King, who was quietly staring back.
I stood there between them for a while, and nothing changed. The street was empty, and Heinrich’s growl was the only sound. King stared intensely at him from a few feet behind me, neither growling nor baring his teeth, just watching and waiting. I stepped tentatively toward the porch, Heinrich’s growl grew louder, and King crouched a little more, one paw sliding forward. I stopped, Heinrich relaxed slightly, so did King. I gave up. I set the paper down in the middle of the driveway, then retreated with King’s collar in my hand. Heinrich watched us the whole time, but he never moved. That was the only time we ever saw Heinrich off the chain, and I can still shiver while remembering the tense energy of that morning.
Kingo got in plenty of actual dogfights, too. It’s sometimes hard to say who “won” a dogfight, especially if you break it up before it’s over, but I only remember two times when King had the worst injuries when the action stopped.
One was a pair of bullmastiffs, huge muscular dogs weighing well over a hundred pounds each. They had a fenced yard, and King wandered in through an open gate. The gate closed, I think because King or one of the dogs bumped it, and the snarling and yelping started immediately. I could hear the fighting, but I couldn’t see it because of the fence. A man ran out of the house and opened the gate, and King limped away, bleeding in a few spots and whimpering with each step.
The other fight King lost was a strange sight indeed, and I saw it all from very close range. We were delivering the paper to a house, and right when we were in front of the door somebody opened it and two little Siamese cats darted out. These cats didn’t seem to notice King until they were right under him, and then they freaked out and starting hissing and slashing at his face and legs. He snapped at them, but they were so fast they could dance out of the way like little bullfighters. One of the cats leaped on King’s back and ripped out handfuls of fur, riding him like a rodeo cowboy while King yelped and spun in circles trying to bite it. The cats got away, back into the house, and I was amazed at how bad they had beat King up: he had several bleeding injuries, and there were tufts of brown and white fur all around him. He could have killed those cats with one bite, but they were quick and they knew how to fight.
I always wondered whether King would attack somebody to defend me from violence, but we never really found out, for good reason: it never came up. There was the time that Martin, a guy who wrestled unlimited weight class at school, got me in a bear hug from behind and wouldn’t let go. I hit him in the head real hard with a pop bottle, and when he let go of me Kingo started humping my leg. The other paper boys thought that was funny, but I think it just meant Kingo felt the adrenaline in the air and didn’t know what to do with it. I was worried that Martin was going to be mad after his head cleared, especially when I saw he was bleeding from his temple. But he just stared at the blood on his fingers while calling me a coward and saying I was nuts.
Another time, Kingo was with me when I was stopped by two sleazy guys in a blue hot car. These guys were apparently out late on a Saturday night, so late that they came across me and Kingo at 5:00 Sunday morning, walking to my route. They pulled up next to us, revving the engine, and I grabbed Kingo’s collar to hold him by my side. The bearded guy on the passenger side rolled down his window and asked if I had any money, and I said no. Then he held up a pocket knife and asked again, and I said no again, and then they laughed and drove away. With Kingo at my side, I felt strong and secure.
We had a monthly meeting at the paper shack, usually on a weekday evening. One cold fall night we discussed adding some new benches to the back of the shack, to make more room for folding papers and stuffing flyers. (Well, actually the flyer stuff was a lie for the benefit of the shack manager – with most flyers, we hauled them down to the giant incinerator behind XL Sooper, where a friend who worked there would burn them up for us, eliminating any evidence that the flyers hadn’t been delivered.) After the meeting, the shack manager drove away and four of us decided to go get some lumber for the new shack addition. We knew of a house under construction a few blocks away, on the shore of Arrow Lake, and we figured we could grab some 2-by-4’s and plywood there and haul it back to the paper shack. If we could convince the shack manager that we bought it, he might even reimburse us, too.
We all walked to the construction site in the darkness, and we found what we were looking for. The first two boys hauled two pieces of plywood between them, and the other boy and I each carried several 8-foot 2-by-4’s. King’s leash was too hard to handle while carrying the lumber, so I stopped to let him loose and draped his chain leash around my neck. By the time I picked everything back up, I was a full block behind the other boys. I saw a man come out of a house and yell to them, then I heard the clatter of lumber dropping on the pavement, and they all ran away. King was already up there with the man, and I ran ahead to them.
“Stop,” the man said. “You’re coming with me.”
He grabbed my shoulder with one hand, and from close range I could see that he was a harmless-looking little middle-aged man. I thought of running away, but he was gripping me tight enough that I would have had to put up a fight, and I didn’t really have anything against him. I figured he would yell at me a bit, or make me take the lumber back, and that would be the end of it.
He brought me into his house, and his wife had already called the police. Kingo got excited when I went into the house, and he ran around behind the house and stood up against the glass door, scratching and barking. He didn’t usually do things like that, so I think he knew something was wrong with this situation. The man stood by the front door, as if guarding against my escape, while the wife slid over to the glass door and verified that it was locked, never taking her eyes off me.
Soon there was a knock on the front door, and a big cop with a mustache walked in: Officer Bob Fox of the Normandy Park police. He thanked the man for detaining me, then spun me around, frisked me, and handcuffed me. I wondered why stealing some 2-by-4’s would rate a pair of handcuffs; being only 12, I didn’t understand that part of the game was for him to try to scare me. He asked why I was out tonight, and I explained that I was a paper boy from the nearby paper shack and we just had a meeting there. He asked about the heavy chain leash around my neck, and I nodded toward King outside the glass door.
We walked out the front door, and King raced around the house to greet me. It was raining lightly now, and Officer Fox led me to his squad car and put me in the back.
“So your dog, he can find his way home, right?”
I knew that Kingo could find his way home from here, but I didn’t want to let him walk down First Avenue alone. Also, I didn’t know what to expect next, and I wanted Kingo with me.
“No, he’s never been off the leash for more than a few minutes, and he doesn’t know this area.”
Officer Fox shook his head in disgust. He probably didn’t believe me, but he probably didn’t want to be responsible for some kid’s dog getting lost either. He stepped aside to let King hop in the back. King shook off inside the car, then sat his wet body down on a brown briefcase in the back seat next to me. Officer Fox drove us back up to the paper shack.
At the paper shack, he removed the handcuffs and had me sit on one of the benches, then he turned his spotlight directly on my face. I couldn’t see anything other than the blinding light, and I clutched Kingo’s collar in the darkness while Officer Fox asked me questions. He asked about the other boys, our plans for the lumber, whether we did this kind of thing very often, whether I had been in trouble before, and many other things. I answered his questions truthfully since I didn’t really have anything to hide. Officer Fox and I would talk many more times in the years ahead, and he became my favorite cop even though he busted me several times for various things.
One sunny afternoon, Kingo and I were walking to the paper shack. We walked through the woods to 202nd, with Kingo running free and roaming through yards and wooded lots. At 202nd, we turned and walked up to First Avenue. I would always put King on the leash when we got to First Avenue, but sometimes I was careless and didn’t do it right away. This was the last time I made that mistake.
The car was a white station wagon, and it hit King a fraction of a second after the tires locked up, so it was still moving pretty fast. He rolled rapidly down the pavement ahead, spinning to a stop on the shoulder of the road. I screamed and ran toward him, but he hopped up quickly and took off running without even looking at me. He ran down 202nd, and I ran as fast as I could behind him. He was limping, but he was so full of energy that he was still pulling away from me when I followed him into the woods. I was full of horror, like the horror of that night when Horse’s happy little face lay perfectly still in a pool of blood on First Avenue the year before.
I got home a minute behind King, and he was sore but in pretty good shape considering what had happened. I don’t remember the exact details, but I think he had some cracked ribs and bruises. He recovered fine, and we were both much more careful around First Avenue after that.
Kingo got cracked ribs another time when Mom accidentally backed over him with the Buick. I rushed home when I heard about it, and Kingo was laying in Mom’s flower garden out back, licking his wounds atop a bed of crushed yellow daffodils. “I don’t know why,” she said, “but he wanted to lay down there, so I let him.” Mom felt terrible about this accident, and she gave Kingo lots of love and attention while nursing him back to health.
The summer I was 13, Greg and I went to Forbes to visit Grandma and Grandpa for a month. We rode the train, which is a very scenic trip through the Rockies in Montana. The day we left, Mom told us all to get in the car. We boys decided to take Kingo to the train station with us, so we had him lay on the back seat and then we put a blanket over the top of him. I kept a hand on his head underneath the blanket, to pet him and keep him quiet. When Mom got in the car, she didn’t notice the big lump in the back seat, and we didn’t uncover him until we were well on the way to King Street station. Mom drove us through a hot dog stand for lunch, and we all had hot dogs, even Kingo. At the train station, we got to hug him goodbye at the last possible minute, right next to the tracks, which was nice.
My other grandmother lived in Bremerton, an hour west of Seattle. When we visited them for the day, Kingo usually stayed behind in the fenced yard. One time, we came back from a day in Bremerton and Kingo was bleeding from his gums. We looked closer and saw that three of his four beautiful fangs were gone, broken off at the base. We later learned what had happened: some neighbor kids had walked past the yard and thrown large rocks at Kingo, and he responded by leaping and catching or blocking them, like the snowballs he loved so much. The kids who did it made it sound like it was King’s fault for being stupid enough to try to catch big rocks in his mouth. Afterward, King’s teeth were never the same again, but his enthusiasm for catching snowballs (or anything else) never weakened.
Kingo’s battered body aged faster than his heart and head. He lived to be pretty old for a big dog, and his joints became painfully stiff in his final year. When he was 12, in the spring of 1977, my parents got another dog, a Beagle pup named Annie. Annie was a nice dog, but it made me sad to think of King getting older. King wasn’t thrilled with the new object of affection in the pack, but he never bit her and he tolerated her attempts to play with him.
Whenever I was faced with an excruciating decision or a stroke of bad luck, I wanted to talk to King about it. I never had any mystical sense that this meant anything, or that he contributed anything – it was just that I felt comfortable with him, and his presence helped remind me of what matters in life. When I was 19, I had a chance to join a band in Port Orchard (near Bremerton, across Puget Sound from our house) that had a series of tavern gigs coming up in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. I met these guys through a friend of my cousin Kim, who had grown up in Port Orchard; Kim told her I played keyboards, and her brother’s band was in immediate need of a keyboard player because the old one left. It would mean going away on the road with some strangers, and they were leaving in a couple of weeks.
I walked King to the top of the hill that leads to the beach. (This is now the site of Marine View Park, but this was long before that, when it was private property.) He was too old to walk down to the beach and back up any more, but we had the hilltop to ourselves, in among the trees, and I could see across the Sound to the Port Orchard area and the Olympic Mountains beyond. I sat with King for a long time, thinking through my options. I wanted to play music for a living very much, and this was an opportunity to travel with a working band. But I didn’t know the people involved very well, and after living with my family for my whole life, I was hesitant to make this radical change so quickly, on such short notice. I decided to stay home, and I sat on the hill hugging King and wondering whether that was a mistake. Four years later, after Kingo was gone, a similar sort of opportunity presented itself and I jumped at the chance to move to Chicago on a few days’ notice to work with strangers in a new town.
There’s only one problem with dogs, in my opinion, but it’s a big one. The problem is, they don’t live long enough. You spend a few years falling in love with a dog, really getting to know it, then it’s time for some stiff and painful twilight years, and then suddenly your friend is gone forever.
When I moved out of the house at age 20, Kingo was definitely in his twilight years. He had painful running sores on his neck, which gummed up his formerly beautiful mane and smelled terrible. He was always stiff and sore, and he took longer and longer to stand up and start moving. Some mornings he couldn’t get up on his hind legs at all, and he dragged his sore body around with his front legs. Mom would raise him up slowly, helping to get his back legs stable underneath him, and then he could walk. He was a proud animal, and it was hard to watch him feel so weak. I wished I could take him with me and take care of him, but I knew he had a better life with Mom than I could provide as a young working man on my own.
The end came shortly after I started working at Boeing and moved out of the house. Mom had been thinking of “putting him to sleep” for months before she brought it up with me. She talked to Dad, and he didn’t like the idea, making a sarcastic comment that “I suppose that’s what you’ll do with me, when I get old and hard to take care of.” (Mom thought of this comment when her and Dad were divorced fifteen years later, after his crippling stroke.) Mom would watch King limp into the living room and approach Dad in his easy chair, and Dad would yell “you stink, get away!” because of the seeping sores on his neck. King would limp away, his head and tail hanging low. I didn’t know about that whole scene at the time – Mom told me later – but I would stop at the house after work in my van, rush in and hug King, then scoop him up and put him in the van to go for a ride. His sores made the van smell terrible, but I never cared.
Mom decided that since I was the one who was most attached to Kingo, she only had to clear the decision with me. When she felt that he had suffered too long – to this day, Mom wishes we did it sooner – she approached me about having him put down. I was sad, but I wasn’t surprised because I had known it was coming for a long time. I told her that I trusted her judgment, and my only comment was that I wanted to be there. I wanted to hold him and comfort him while he took his last breath.
Mom scheduled it for late in the afternoon, so that I could leave work early and come pick her and Kingo up at the house. Brad wanted to come along, too; he was 15, I was 20, King was 14. The four of us rode in silence down to the Des Moines Veterinarian Clinic, and we walked in together. In a small room in the back, I lifted King up and carefully set him on a steel table. I put my arms around him, and his formerly powerful body was frail and weak. He felt tired. The energy that had chewed the gloves off my hands the day we met was long gone, and he was so calm that I wondered whether he knew what was happening.
I held King’s collar while the vet gave him a shot in the arm. His eyes blinked slowly, and he looked sleepy. Each blink looked like it could be his last, and when the end finally came he shivered briefly and then he was still. For the first time in 14 years, I had to learn a life lesson without his help: how to handle the loss of your best friend.
The vet checked his pulse and confirmed he was dead, and I removed his dog tags and his collar, which reeked from the sores on his neck. I drove Mom and Brad home in silence while we all sobbed. Then I drove back to the rented house in Des Moines where I lived with several roommates, past the clinic where I knew his body wasn’t even cold yet.
When I got home, I set King’s collar on the coffee table in front of the fireplace, then slowly built a huge roaring fire. I sat on the edge of the coffee table playing my guitar, looking back and forth between the collar, the flames in the fireplace, and the blue waters of Puget Sound outside the window. I wanted to write a song for him, but I didn’t feel capable of expressing anything that would do justice to his place in my life. I strummed and cried until my skin was hot from the fire, but the words never came.
I like to wonder whether I run like him.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Doug Mahugh. All Rights Reserved.