Those dog-gone blues

A good friend of mine, and also a homegrown native of Vail, Iowa, Tom Hawley, was the publisher/editor of The Record-Herald and Indianola Tribune when I lived in Martensdale with my sixteen-year-old daughter in 1994. Tom approached me to contribute to a column “County Line” that featured essays written by residents of Warren County. I was honored and flattered to do so. That summer, I authored the following essay for The Record-Herald and Indianola Tribune.


I wish I had a dog.

Oh, it wouldn’t be difficult to get one. I could adopt one from the Animal Rescue League. Or I could buy a registered pedigreed pup from a pet store. Or I could write this article and hope someone would be touched enough to offer me a free one.

But since my lease has a clause that prohibits me from owning an animal, for now, I will have to live with the memory of a pet I had about 20 years ago. She was the best dog anyone could ever want.

One autumn evening in the early 1970s I was traveling down a dry, dusty gravel road when a small dog appeared on the shoulder portion of the road. The puppy was too small to be away from its mother, so I pulled over to the edge of the roadway, got out of my car and approached the little creature who fearlessly stood wagging her tail in anticipation of the affection I was about to give her.

This brave little animal had miraculously made her way up an extremely steep embankment while leaving what seemed to be her siblings huddled in a torn burlap bag at the bottom of the ditch. Apparently, all five multiple-bred hounds were originally destined for the river which was less than an eighth of a mile away.

I couldn’t resist adopting the puppy that bravely stood by the side of the road in a gallant effort to guard what was left of her family. That same evening, I brought her home and found homes for her adorable brothers and sisters. Convincing my mother that the dog would be no trouble was one of the most difficult lobbying efforts I have ever pulled off.

Once the dog was reluctantly accepted into the family, my mother scolded me for giving a mongrel the same name as the Blessed Virgin Mary. I assured her that the dog’s name, Mari, was actually short for America. However, as most of my close friends knew, since she was found near a cluster of wild hemp weed, Mari was in fact a shortened version of the full name I had given her, Marijuana.

Mari was a great companion and faithful follower, or fearless leader, depending upon where she walked in proximity to me. She would quietly sit outside any downtown business establishment for hours, waiting patiently, while I wasted time inside. As we left the business district for home, she would proudly lead the way, wagging her tail until she became distracted by another animal, another pedestrian, or even a wind-blown leaf.

One dreary, overcast spring morning, moments after we had acquired the daily mail and made other necessary errands, I heard her barking outside the house. Mari rarely barked, if ever. As I approached the porch door, I could see Mari was jumping six feet off the ground. I had never seen her this way.

As I opened the door she raced into the house, running in circles and vacillating between a high-pitched bark and a scary growl. Something was wrong. Without thinking, I somehow directed her down the steps into the basement and closed the door. For the first time since I brought her home months ago, I was afraid of her, and afraid for her. I didn’t hesitate to call the nearest veterinarian.

The vet told me to stay away from her until he could get there. His office was five miles away, but he guaranteed me that he would leave immediately. I was relieved and comforted when he arrived at our house within ten minutes. Nevertheless, I hadn’t heard Mari bark, growl, yelp, or whimper for the past five minutes.

When the vet arrived, he told me to go down the steps into the basement ahead of him. I was disinclined to do so, but he assured me that the dog would cause no harm to me, only to him. It made very little difference; I had a hunch that Mari was dead.

My worst fear became reality as I walked into a room around the corner of the steps to see Mari lying motionless in a puddle of bright pink blood. I ran to her side only to discover that life had exited her body with the warm, sticky body fluid. The vet never entered the room but stood near the doorway and told me that it looked like the dog had been poisoned. He hastily diagnosed the situation. “It’s strychnine poisoning.”

I was rapidly entering the first stage of the grief process when the vet noticed a small collection of assembled model cars on a distant table. He asked me if I had any model train parts. It was known to many area residents that his hobby was the collection of an impressive set of model trains and railroads.

I couldn’t believe it. My devoted pet had just suffered a tragic death, and I was significantly suffering myself, and he thought I would be interested in discussing trains and railroads. Is the term “bed-side manner” limited to medical doctors? I was furious! I rudely escorted him to the door and instructed him to send me a bill.

After the vet had left, I gently placed Mari in a cardboard box, cleaned the blood off the floor, and put the rags and other cleaning materials into the box alongside of her now cold carcass.

I drove out into the country and stopped along the road, about one mile from where I had found her only months ago. I carried the box from my car and sat it down in the middle of a barren, recently plowed field. After soaking the box with gasoline, I stood in silence for a few moments, tears clouding my vision. Eventually, I drew the courage to throw a lit wooden match into the pile of defunct memories.

I remained in that field for quite some time watching the pyre dwindle to a flicker, releasing every tear I had left in me. She was gone now. I had to get over it. But it was difficult to get over the circumstances surrounding her death.

Sometime later I discovered through the grapevine who was responsible for the poisoning of Mari. Though I could never prove it, and never confronted him, every clue pointed toward implicating a certain old man who lived a few houses from ours.

The vet and the man I believe responsible for Mari’s poisoning have been dead for years. It is only now that I can forgive them for their insensitive actions. Death is inevitable. I know that. Mari’s death was too drastic and sudden.

Maybe I don’t want a dog after all. I’m content to live with the memory.

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