“the best dog in the world”
The grownups, in the Cincinnati neighborhood, called us the Hartwell Boys. We called ourselves the Snakes. We spent Saturdays hiking and exploring the woods behind Drake hospital. We would rise early, pack our own lunch, hope that Mom didn’t have any chores for us and take off for the woods. We were a band of five to seven adventurers. Boots, our dog, came too. Boots loved the hikes as much as we did. There were rope swings and vines to swing on and giant storm sewers so long and dark that we imagined giant ants living in them. The creek was deep enough and clean enough to swim in, and the day was never long enough to get in all our scheduled play.
The woods were a good two miles from our house. We walked the entire way, then hiked and climbed the hills and trails ‘till late afternoon and time to walk the two miles back home. We never thought to ask our parents for a ride; if we had, “is your leg broke?” would have been the reply. The day was spent without adult supervision. We were self-sufficient and independent beyond our years. We survived because of ever improving common sense and Boots the dog. More than once, Boots saved us, by showing his teeth and snarl, to older boys ready to bully us. They bullied us for sport; threw mud at us or tried to steal our lunch. It was dealing with bullies, that I first gained confidence, in my ability, to out-think 99% of them. If push came to shove, Boots, the friendliest dog in the world, would act protective and show his teeth if he thought we were threatened. He was a good judge of character.
On one occasion, a kid sicked his German shepherd on us. Boots was fearless and didn’t back down even though he was over matched. We tried to keep Boots away, but the shepherd, at his owners insistence, wouldn’t leave and kept coming at us. The two dogs got into a vicious fight and the shepherd had Boots down, like he would kill him. I grabbed a stick and Gary grabbed a branch and we beat that shepherd hard across the back. The large dog turned on us his eyes glazed, like a mystic beast, and Boots grabbed a leg in his mouth, bit hard and hung on. The crazed dog turned, to bite Boots, and I cracked him hard, on the head. He yelped and went down, rolling; Boots was on top of him, with Gary pulling at Boot’s collar. As the shepherd rose, the fight was gone from his eyes; I slammed the stick across his back one more time. I watched through tears of anger, tears of fear, the big dog limp off, his tail tucked between his legs. His owner spouted profanity and said, his mother would sue us.
I didn’t tell Mom about this, because, on the day we got Boots, Mom said, ‘if he caused any trouble he was gone.’
We got Boots about a year after my Father died. It was early summer and David Coffman’s Cocker mix had puppies in need of a home. Gary, Henry, Freddie, and I walked up to David’s house to see the pups. They were beautiful. “Heinz 57” mutts for sure. To this day I can only guess at Boot’s father’s pedigree. Each puppy was different. Half had long brown hair with white chests; two of the others were solid black short haired pups with tails that curled over their backs. The remaining pup had short black hair and the curled tail, but with the white chest, of his brown brothers. His legs were brown and they ended in white feet that looked like boots.
Henry took one of the brown ones and Gary and I agreed on the tricolor with white feet. I was happy and apprehensive. I’d always wanted a dog, but my mother had always said NO! No in those days didn’t mean maybe, or I’ll think about it. Unlike the mothers, of today, who can be worn down by pleas, tears or tirades, Marie’s no meant NO! Forget it, and if you bug me you’ll get punished. Not a hollow threat. Nowhere did we get a quicker, louder no than when a puppy entered the conversation.
My Grandmother wouldn’t let a dog in her house and neither would Mom, or so she said, each time the subject came up. “Dogs were for herding cattle and sheep and keeping varmints away, not for sharing your house like a family member.” She Quoted her mother’s farm dog logic adding, “we didn’t have any cattle or sheep and she wasn’t going to have a dog tied in the yard and there would be no smelly dog living in her house.”
As we carried the pups down the street, we talked about how much fun we were going to have watching them grow up together. We thought of names. I said Champ because that had been the name of my father’s pointer. Henry said he was going to call his dog Champ too because our Grandfather’s dog had been named Champ. Every dog the Reisenberg’s had ever owned was called Champ. I tried to suggest other names for Henry’s dog: Brownie, Buster, Wag but Henry wouldn’t budge. Usually Henry was quick to compromise. Not this time, all he’d offer is that both dogs could be called Champ because they wouldn’t be living in the same house. As we neared Henry’s drive my steps slowed and my stomach churned. I knew that we had to ask just right, somehow let it be Mom’s idea. We needed a plan. Gary carried the puppy up the driveway as Henry ran ahead with his prize. I tried to get Gary to wait,instead he ran ahead with our Champs legs swinging side to side as he ran. Uncle George, Aunt Eunice and my Mother were coming out the front door, as we arrived. I could hear Mom say no as soon as she saw the puppies. I knew we needed a plan!
I charged up to the gathering and said “Mom please we need a puppy I’ll feed him. Oh Please!” I begged. Not much of a plan was my panicked thought. Henry was having better luck. Eunice reminded George that they had promised Henry, after they moved, he could have a dog.
Mom held firm. She was not in the habit of changing her mind. As I said, No meant NO! Gary was hugging the dog and begging and Mom was going through her list of why we couldn’t have a dog. I was trying to combat her reasons with I’ll feed him; I’ll keep him outside; I’ll bathe him.
“Well at least he has short hair” I heard Mom say.
Hope! A crack in her defenses. Then the worst possible command. “You boys take him back to his Mother because its time for us to go.”
“Ah Mom” Gary and I pleaded in unison.
“ No and that’s final. We don’t have a place to keep a dog.”
That was it, the final word. My heart sunk, tears weld in my eyes. I tried to think of any persuasion. I looked at Henry playing with his Champ and blurted “It’s NOT FAIR.”
Gary hauled our puppy down the drive and turned up the street away from David’s house.
“Were are you going.” Mom called.
“I’m running away and I’m taking my dog with me!” he screamed.
I ran to join him and Mom, still not giving up, caught Gary and tried to pry Gary’s arms from the dogs neck. I was screaming You’ll hurt him; you’ll hurt him!
Then I heard Uncle George say to my mother, “There are worse things than a boy having a dog.”
Mom relaxed her grip. “I can see I’m out numbered. But I’m telling you, I’m not feeding him and he sleeps on the back-porch. There will be no smelly dog in my house.”
“At least he has short hair I reminded her.” as I sniffled back tears and felt a joyful warmth fill my heart. I WAS GETTING A DOG!
Gary and I hugged him all the way home. Mom asked what we were going to name the puppy? Champ! After Dad’s dog of coarse. “No that’s what Henry’s calling his dog. You both can’t have dogs with the same name. Why don’t you call him socks he has four white feet.”
“ Socks is a cats name,” I protested. “Besides they’re boots not socks.”
OK, call him Boots.”
“Boooots”? Gary repeated slowly.
So Boots it was. Boots was absolutely the best dog a boy ever have owned. He was loyal, loving and would spend every moment with us if he could. He protected us as in the story above and when Gary and I would wrestle he would grab an ankle and try to pull us apart. Boots even growled at Marie and stood between her and us when she tried to spank Gary for misbehaving.
Boots was there when we left for school and was on the front porch waiting for us to come home. He loved to chase cats. We all did. We would scout the neighborhood for cats, show them to Boots and the chase would be on. We’d climb fences, jump hedges and race across backyards till our quarry was treed or cornered. It was sport and Boots never did a cat any harm. Once we arrived to acknowledge his catch, Boots would walk away and leave the cat alone. Mrs. Horn, Fritz’s mother, would scold us for terrorizing her cats. Her cats seemed to enjoy the chase as much as we did. On more than one occasion, they would walk into the open, and show themselves, when they could have easily hid under the porch. They knew Boots wouldn’t hurt them and they took liberties with him that they wouldn’t have with strange dogs.
Boots got hit by a car, coming back from a successful car chase. Boots would chase a car and if the driver slowed down; Boots would get in front and bring the car to a full stop. He looked so proud, of himself, as he pranced back to our yard. He never saw the car that hit him. He survived with a pin in his leg.
Mom always said, if he got hit she wasn’t paying any vet bills. That he could die, by the side of the road, for all she cared. She also said that she wouldn’t let him in the house or own a long haired dog. Boots slept on the porch only one night. His short hair grew long so that he looked like a black Sheltie. Funny how things work out. On that first day we drug the puppies home, Henry’s dog had long hair ‘blew’ his puppy coat and ended up short haired. Boots’ hair grew long and straight. Mom paid the Vet bill when he got hit and the newspaper add when he was lost.
It was the only year I can remember going to Virginia for Christmas. We rode the train through snow covered Mountains and “Currier and Ivies” farmland. It was the first Christmas my Grandparents celebrated away, from the farm. I didn’t want them to leave the farm but Mom said the work was too hard and they would be happier in Bridgewater. Of coarse they continued to work the only way they knew: sun up to sun down and hard. The bathroom was inside the house with running water upstairs and down. Here we were, in 1955, and this was the first house they had lived in with running water, indoor plumbing and electricity in every room!
That ’55 winter started off mild, but it snowed, in the West Virginia mountains, as the C&O plowed its way to Staunton Va. We arrived, after midnight, four hours late. The flurries and light snow swirled round the station’s lights. as if fireflies or moths, drawn to a flame. I found it remarkable that the night lights looked the same in December as they had in July. Half my Aunts, Uncles and cousins were there to greet us. We were family, only seen twice a year. To me, a young boy, I felt special, as if living in Ohio, made us some kind of royalty.
I remember these things about the trip: snuggling down under heavy quilts, into a down mattress; opening presents, far from home; listening to Mom and her sisters talk about Christmas when they were children. Uncle Wayland had a sleigh and took them caroling. Mostly they talked about Grandma and how she hoarded egg money so they could have a special Christmas. Toys were not their most prized gifts. Candy and an oranges were what they treasured most. An orange, in winter, in the 1920’s, was a remarkable thing. My aunt Dorothy hid hers and saved it for later. The other sisters ate theirs right away. I remember Christmas dinner with ham, roast beef, and the traditional turkey. Grandma didn’t sit at the table. She had her plate in the kitchen and would grab a bite of food between catering to the rest of us. I ate a few green-beans, a bite of cranberry, some corn, lots of turkey and a small piece of each kind of pie.
Most of all I remember the train ride home and a felling of foreboding. The night before, I had dreamed about Boots and we were running in the snow. Then he was running beyond some trees and didn’t come when I called. At first I thought I felt sad about having to leave Virginia. The feeling intensified and by morning my skin was crawling and my insides were knotted. I’m not sure where intuition and premonitions come from. Perhaps I picked up vibes from Mom. Or maybe Uncle George gave off some unseen E.S.P. or maybe some angel in heaven was “talking” to me. All I know is that as soon as we were in George’s car, I knew something was wrong with Boots.
“How’s Boots?” I asked, No answer. “Did Boots act like he missed us?” I persisted.
I knew something was wrong.
“Where’s Boots?” I insisted. “What did you do with him?”.
George spoke to my Mom in a half whisper, “We need to tell them.” George continued, “Boots was doing fine at the house, but Nanny couldn’t feed him after the snow so I brought him up here. He did fine. We tied him when we let him out. The rest of the time he stayed warm in the house.”
“So what happened?” I screamed.
“ He ran off” Mom interrupted, as George started to speak. “ He’s probably back waiting for us and will be wagging his tail when we pull in the drive.”
George lit his pipe and puffed it nervously. He almost never smoked in the car. He knew we had agreed that, if I went to Virginia, Boots was to stay at our house. I had insisted on this because Boots always got nervous and had tried to run away from George’s house before. My mind raced with possible conclusions, none of them good. As we pulled into the drive, I looked for Boots and he wasn’t there. I got out of the car and started to call for Boots. No answer!
“Here Boots come here.” I screamed. Gary joined me in calling for Boots. Our cries grew high pitched and desperate.
“ You boys stop you’ll only upset your mother. That dog only ran off yesterday, I’m sure he’ll show up when he gets hungry.”
“You let Boots go on purpose.” I screamed. “You did it because you know he’s a better dog than Champ. You knew he’d run away. That’s why you brought him up here. If he’s dead its your fault and I’ll never forgive you.”
Mom silenced me with a raised hand. She knew I didn’t mean what I said. It was the fear and heart break, of a child, talking. I knew I’d never see Boots again! George told Mom to let me vent, but no more words came from my mouth.
Gary and I marched off down the road calling for Boots. “Here Boots, Here Boots,” we called. After we had walked about two miles, Mom pulled up and drove us home.
She said, I shouldn’t have talked to George the way I had, that I had hurt his feelings.
Gary asked, if Mom thought we’d find Boots and she replied that he was probably trying to find his way home even as we drove. I sat quiet, praying to God that Boots would come home and be at the house when we got there. I prayed, but in my heart, I knew he was lost. My heart ached, yet I cried no tears. I told myself I was never going to cry again.
I looked for Boots on the porch, as we drove into the drive. His bowl was on the back porch with a bone and lead. Each day, after school, I’d ask God to let me have my dog back. After a week I quit watching the clock till the bell rang. I was mad at Boots for running away. I had told him we would be back for him. Grandmother Reisenberg, who we called “Nanny,” tried to give me hope and encouragement. She told me stories about other dogs that had traveled hundreds of miles, to find their owners.
That night the blizzard hit. The temperature dropped below zero; the wind howled and piled the snow in drifts halfway to the garage roof. Mom could see I was worried and suggested that some family would feed Boots and take him in, but I knew he was gone and I said my good-byes. We took a long drive that Sunday looking for him. It wasn’t like Marie to spend time looking for a dog. I think she was honestly worried about him. She promised, we would drive the back roads every Sunday, in case Boots was trying to find us. It stayed bitter cold for a week. We didn’t look for Boots on Sunday; a fresh four inches of snow had fallen. Boots had been missing for five weeks, and I figured Mom had given up.
After school on Tuesday, Mom said, she had to go get something, from a friend, and she wanted Gary and I to go along. She had a weird look, in her eye, and I knew It was Boots we were going after; just as I had known he was missing, when George drove us, from the train station.
Mom wanted it to be a surprise. Gary picked up on my quizzing and asked Mom, if we were going to get Boots?
“Don’t get your hopes up, this dog may only look like Boots”. She cautioned.
We drove a long way up Compton road, not toward George’s house in Springdale. Small snows and cold weather had kept the ground white. We left the suburbs and entered farmland, inter mixed with an occasional string, of three or four houses. Mom slowed and pulled into a driveway. A tall man came out to meet us and told mom that ‘Peppy’ hadn’t been seen that day.
Most days the dog would meet his kids when they got off the bus. ‘Peppy’ wasn’t there to meet them today. He said, the dog wouldn’t let any grown up near him, and none of the children could read his collar. They had been feeding him for about two weeks, and ‘Peppy’ had taken shelter in a drainage pipe to get out of the storm. It was only when his wife had suggested it, that he thought to look, in the “big city” newspaper. That was Mom. She put the add, in the paper, and didn’t tell us.
Gary and I started calling for Boots. Across the field, that separated two groups of houses behind a row of trees, a small black dog was running. It was Boots! He ran circles around us. ‘Round and round he sprinted yelping with delight. The dry powdered snow sparkled behind his racing feet and filled the clear air with diamonds. I felt a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.
“No doubting whose dog that is” said, the man.
Gary dove on the running Boots. The three of us laid in the snow. Our dog Boots licked and kissed us; he was ready to go home.
“So his name is Boots! My youngest wanted to call him that. She was the first kid he let get close to him. My wife named him Peppy. He must have been trying to get back to you boys and got stuck, in the storm.”
Mom reminded us, to thank the man, for feeding Boots. She offered him a reward, but he refused, saying, watching that dog run with Gary and I was the only reward he needed! His kids were in the house. Their faces were stacked between separated window curtains. They were not happy faces. They wanted to keep Boots. As we were getting in the car, a little girl with pigtails, and no coat or shoes, came running down the drive. She hugged Boots through the open car door.
“ Bye-bye Boots” she sobbed, “I love you.” between whimpers she said, “I want Boots”.
Her father put his arms around her, hugged her, whispered, “I know; I’m sorry, we’ll find you a dog.” He playfully swung her up over his shoulder and carried her back to the house. Looking back over his shoulder, our eyes met, and she smiled at me.
Today we have DogWatch to keep dogs safe at home.
I have lots of other Boots stories as well as anecdotes, inspired by Abby, Casey, Roxie and Rosy. They are the other dogs I’ve been lucky enough to own. I’ll inter mix them with news blips about twice a week as well as stories about DogWatch Dogs. Thanks for reading Mike DW of the Shenandoah.