Over the years I have lived in the same house with a succession of dogs, although never with more than one at a time if you don’t count new puppies. Most of them were normal, at least as normal as any dog can be. A few of them were surpassingly odd. To me, that didn’t matter. I loved them all. But the odd ones were more interesting.
The first oddball was Bridget, an Irish terrier. It was a long time ago, on Bushwillie Farm in East Pittsford, Vermont, and my memory, the memory of a hyperactive ten-year-old boy, is that she was heavyset for a terrier. Her belly swung from side to side when she ran.
Bridget was more than merely “odd.” She was downright goofy. She had been taught by me and my sister and two brothers to roll over, which she did laboriously until a dog biscuit came her way. We kept the dog biscuits in the sizable burlap sack they came in, stashed upright in a corner of our voluminous kitchen near the door to the woodshed. One mid-morning, when I was alone in the kitchen with Bridget, I saw her standing in front of the dog biscuits and staring at them fixedly. Studying them. She was absolutely silent. Suddenly, it must have been a kind of canine epiphany, she rolled over. And over and over again. Not a single dog biscuit popped out the sack in response to this maniacal trick. Nevertheless, she was a whirling dervish on the kitchen floor. Presently she had the entire family as an audience, a family laughing so hard they had tears in their eyes.
Bridget ignored us. She just kept on revolving. She didn’t stop until my sister Janet reached into the sack and got her a biscuit.
Following Bridget, we had some normal dogs, and then the family moved to Montreal, where my father worked for a sugar refinery. While my father was on vacation in Cuba, he bought a little tank-like English bull terrier named Guapa (Spanish for “handsome”). Guapa was fairly normal, and I shall skip her except for two things: 1. She loved to play “fetch” with a slimy old tennis ball and you had to be careful not to get your fingers caught in her jaws when she returned the ball to you. She had jaws of steel. And 2. She was the mother of Barfly, the dog my wife O’Hara and I had when we got married in June 1941.
I was a cub reporter on The Rutland Herald at the time. We rented a one-room apartment in a gothic mansion not far from the Herald office. Barfly, of course, was with us.
Barfly hated the cold, hated snow. Before I went to work in the early evening, I’d take her outside. She’d venture onto the snow-covered lawn of our house as if she were moving through a minefield. She wanted to levitate, to float above the snow, but since she couldn’t do that she would pick up what she considered a stone cold frozen paw, hold it aloft, hop a few yards, then put it down and lift another paw. She cried piteously. It took her ages to do what she was supposed to do. When she was finished, she would hippety-hop back onto the porch, dart inside, then rush upstairs and jump on the bed, deep in hypothermia. She thought I was cruel.
She must have found O’Hara equally cruel. Rather than leave her alone in the apartment, O’Hara took Barfly with her when she shopped. Took her on a leash. Barfly could not stand the icy, slippery, frozen sidewalks. On one famous day, she refused to go any further. Total rebellion. She braced herself against the tug of the leash, then collapsed, went limp. She was fed up, but by then so was O’Hara. She dragged Barfly along the sidewalk as if she were a sled. The dog’s white legs stuck straight up in the air and O’Hara dragged her at least two blocks. It was a spectacle. The stuff of legends. Automobiles slowed. Drivers honked horns, swerving to avoid collisions. Pedestrians stopped dead in their tracks, awestruck.
In 1942, I joined the Air Force, and we had to give Barfly to a close friend of the family. I’m told she lived a long, happy life, with little woolen booties on her paws.
In 1951, now with two small children, we moved to Sausalito, California, a town on San Francisco Bay just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
And we acquired Pinot Noir, a poodle. He was black and tinged with silver. We didn’t trim him, didn’t give him one of those silly hairdos favored by the courtiers of Louis IX. He was big (50 pounds), had a marvelous gait, and wouldn’t have looked out of place with a company of Viennese Lipizzaners strutting their stuff.
And he liked to roam. He roamed all over Sausalito, looking for friends, animals and people alike. Pinot did not have a mean bone in his body. He enjoyed being alive; he was on a constant high. He laughed all the time and did some zany things.
One day, when he was cruising Bridgeway, which borders the bay, Pinot sauntered into the Sausalito Bait & Tackle Shop, a venerable institution. He spotted a ten-pound smoked salmon on the counter, where it was waiting for the fisherman who had caught it. Pinot stole it. He just grabbed it off the counter and ran out the door with the shop’s outraged owner close behind. They ran north on Bridgeway, dodging traffic, Pinot holding the salmon high and chewing on it, the owner shouting “Stop, thief!” or words to that effect.
I got a call from the Sausalito Police Department that afternoon. A cop said:
“You own a dog named Pinot Noir?” (His name–and mine–were on his collar, along with his license tag.)
“Yes. Yes! What’s the matter with him?”
“He stole a fish from Bait & Tackle. He’s locked up in their truck. You can have him if you pay them twelve dollars…the price of the fish!”
“I’ll be right down.”
I got in my car and raced down there. I parked in back of the pickup. Pinot was in the driver’s seat and I could see his head bobbing up and down. He looked frantic. He was bracing like crazy. He spotted me as I crossed the street to go into the Bait & Tackle shop, and he got even more frantic. “Hey Boss! Lemme out! Lemme out!”
I paid the bill, grabbed Pinot, and dragged him into my car. He was happy to see me. Delirious. I didn’t think he’d run away, but I was taking no chances.
He barked all the way home and wagged his tail. I let him out in the driveway. He galloped into the house, the front door was wide open, and when I next saw him, his head was buried in the toilet and he was gulping down water. The smoked salmon had parched him.
David Hurlburd, a San Francisco Chronicle gossip columnist, heard the story from a mutual friend and put Pinot Noir in his column. Which proves that Andy Warhol was right: every dog has his fifteen minutes of fame.
Pinot Noir was our last dog. They were all great dogs, but Pinot was the best. And the brightest.