Our connection with the animals is a complex issue. I mean we eat some of them while others work for us and others are pampered pets, friends of a sort or virtually members of the family. I think it used to be more like the friendship thing and less like the next meal thing. By ‘used to’ I mean before we fell into sin and we all lived together on earth as a paradise. Perhaps I will write something more on that in a future installment. Then, there is the other end of the spectrum: the future rather than the past. Do dogs really go to heaven & etc. CS Lewis often expounded on his theory that the destiny of the animals is tied to the destiny of man who has dominion over them – long story short – As per the book of Romans, nature fell when we fell and waits for redemption along with our redemption. Ergo, Lewis concluded, the animals will make the jump to eternity on our coat tails. Another future blog post!
For now, let me just say that all our lives have been touched and shaped by the animals that pass through them. The usual suspects are dogs, cats and horses – though there are substantial minorities favoring other species! These days I am not much of a pet person. My wife’s cat and I co-exist – mostly peaceably. But in my youth it was definitely dogs – three dogs in particular.
Patty was a pure-bred Irish setter with a big long certified birth name I no longer recall. He arrived as a Christmas Puppy for my mother who had long admired the breed. Patty was a moron. He was forever doing things like getting his head stuck in the hand-hole for unlocking the sliding barn door. Let me assure you that easing a frantic Irish Setter’s head back through such a hole is a task. But such incidents took place because you pretty much had to lock Patty in the barn if you wanted to go anywhere. We were hunters and hunting was, I suppose, in Patty’s blood. But his idea of hunting was to run back and forth across the woods with much loud crashing and thrashing and, if you forgot for a moment to hold it up too high, suck on the end of your gun barrel as though it were a soda straw. He loved the smell of gun powder. Patty also loved to accompany the tractor and trailer on wood-cutting expeditions. And when he attracted the negative attention of other dogs along the way, to run underneath the moving tractor with the neighbor dogs darting in and out. This necessitated stopping, breaking up the dog-fight and putting Patty in the trailer, tied to the spare tire – which was no guarantee he still wouldn’t jump back out and end up running alone beside the trailer on back paws only. Patty frequently went to war with bees, snapping them out of the air – and getting stung until his mouth got too swollen to carry on. Always a drooler, with a mouth full of bee venom patty left puddles fit for wading. There’s more. Suffice it to say Patty had character and enthusiasm and needed constant watching over. He made me laugh and made me more responsible.
Spot was a Dalmatian/Mutt mix. When we moved from town to the farm, dad got Spot from a litter at my Great Grandfather’s farm. (Grandpa Ros kept pure Dalmatians and wasn’t overly attached to the ‘accidents’.) Spot got along with everyone as long as it was all fun and games. He liked playing with us kids though he could play kind of rough. And as he grew he became a marauder, single handedly wiping out the little flock of Muscovy Ducks that lived on the farm when we arrived. Soon after, Spot turned his attention to our White Rock Chickens. When you locked Patty in the barn he only whined and got his head stuck in the hand-hole. Any effort to discipline Spot or put him somewhere he didn’t want to go ended with his backing into a corner growling and ready to defend his liberty with teeth. Dad worked hard with Spot but the end came as it probably mush have soon anyway. Spot was also an inveterate car chaser and one week while I was away at church camp, Spot was run over. The lessons I learned from Spot were somewhat different from those I learned from Patty but I was sorry Spot was gone and wished he could have learned better and, perhaps, that I could have helped him more.
To set the context, I was twelve when Spot came along and just ready to take off for college when Patty turned up under the Christmas tree. Bandit, (all mutt) definitely THE dog of my youth, arrived on the scene in between – a replacement for Spot and the established boss dog when Patty got there. Bandit left the chickens alone, pretended he couldn’t see bees (or spiders or snakes or…) Bandit seemed embarrassed the few times he accidentally touched the electric fence – a quick yelp followed by a survey of the scene as though to establish whether his indiscretion had been observed. Bandit never ran when walking would do and knew how to be quiet in the woods – and everywhere else. At any rate, he hated the sound of gunfire and promptly disappeared any time he saw a firearm. But he loved to camp in our woods with me anytime guns weren’t involved. If I ever thought of bandit as protection of any sort I didn’t think it for long as it became obvious Bandit thought of me as protection. Bandit stayed well away from our pigs unless we happened to be working with them – moving them, ringing them, etc. On all such occasions Bandit would station himself directly behind me, stick his head between my legs and bark what I took to be vile obscenities and challenges at the porkers. He would go anywhere I would go. He felt sure I would fend off the neighbor dogs, the pigs, any night monsters, etc. Fortunately, Grizzly bears were scarce in central Indiana in my teen years. AND bandit climbed trees. Well some trees anyway. That also arose from his determination to go where I went. I climbed trees. I never saw a tree I didn’t want to climb. It started one beautiful summer afternoon hiking through the woods on the way to a neighboring pond where we had fishing privileges. I stopped to climb a familiar tree on the south side of our wood lot – a sprawling old oak growing near the top of a high bank. The situation produced a large limb about fifteen feet up the oak but extending outward to just above ground level at the top of the bank. A good hopping step put your feet on that limb. A walk along the limb to the trunk and on up a virtual spiral staircase of typical radial/wheel spoke limbs. But on this day, I hopped onto the limb and so did Bandit. I grinned. I walked to the trunk and so did Bandit. I laughed and scratched him behind the ears. I went up a couple limbs and Bandit followed. He reached his limit there so I sat down and he lay along the limb with his head on my leg. It was, as they say, a moment: a boy and his dog, in a tree, masters of all they surveyed. We always stopped to climb that tree (and a couple of others Bandit learned to navigate) after that. Some years later when I brought Mikel (my then fiancé/now wife of forty + years) home to meet the folks, we took a walk – with Bandit – in the woods and even though he was an old dog by then, he got to show off his tree climbing ability for her. Along with being a constant companion, Bandit taught me that trust makes many seemingly impossible things possible.
Though Spot came to a bad end, Bandit and Patty died of old age there on the farm. All three rest beneath the shade of an old hickory in the pond lot, and, I suppose, they were only animals. But I learned things from all three of them and they are, in part, responsible, for good or ill, for the person I am.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church