Man’s best friend
By LONN TAYLOR
All journalists eventually write about dogs. There is an old saw to the effect that readers like stories about dogs, about doctors, and about Abraham Lincoln, so that the ideal newspaper story would be about Lincoln’s doctor’s dog. I don’t know any stories about Lincoln and my doctor is about to move off to Odessa, so this is my column about dogs.
I have only really owned one dog in my life, a black and white toy fox terrier named Jinx that my father brought home for me when I was three and was the joy of my life until I was five, when we moved from a house with a big yard in Spartanburg, South Carolina to an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. The apartment building did not permit pets, and I had to give Jinx away to our neighbors. The only thing I remember clearly about Jinx is that she hated watermelons. In the summer there was usually one under our kitchen table, waiting to be sliced and eaten, and Jinx would make a daily attack on it. She would start out by circling the table, growling at the watermelon from various points of the compass, and then she would execute a series a dashes at it, barking wildly as she charged across the linoleum, sliding to a stop just before she reached it, twisting her little body around for another attack from a different direction. This would go on for ten minutes or so until, convinced that she had cowed the melon into subservience, she would curl up by the stove and go to sleep. My mother thought this performance was hilarious; I was just embarrassed for Jinx. She was trying so hard and the only result was deprecating female laughter.
Here in Fort Davis we have no need for a dog. Several years ago I counted eighteen of them in a walk around our block. The number has diminished somewhat since a man who had six hounds moved away, and Ross Rigby, a DPS officer who had the best-looking young bird dog I have ever seen and a sleek little black cur that he bought to keep the bird dog company got transferred to Dilley, but we are still well supplied. Our current favorite is a big melancholy-looking bloodhound named Judge, whose uncanny baying bark can be heard for several blocks and who occasionally amuses himself by barking at the echo of his bark bouncing off Sleeping Lion Mountain. Guests have been known to rise out their chairs on our screened porch with a what-the-hell-was-that look on their faces when Judge is in full tongue. Not long ago someone posted a message to our community chat board asking if anyone else in town had heard an elk bugling. I’m sure they had heard Judge.
Judge’s name fits him perfectly. He is a dog with great dignity. Even though my wife and I walk by his yard daily and greet him by name, he seldom deigns to acknowledge us, instead posing, head in air, like James Thurber’s cast iron lawn dog. I have known other dogs with appropriate names. I once knew an elegant, slim woman in Washington, D.C. who worked for the State Department and had an elegant, slim, standard poodle named Botsford. It was the perfect name for both of them. My former wife, who was a classics major in college, had a big, hairy, mixed-breed bitch named Penthesilea when I met her. Penthesilea, in Greek mythology, was the Queen of the Amazons. A neighbor in Santa Fe had a Basset named Benito Juarez. The longer you looked at that dog the more his face looked like those sad-eyed concrete heads of Benito Juarez that grace highway intersections all over Mexico (“Turn right at Benito Juarez . . .”).
There are certain traditions to be followed in naming dogs. Some dogs cry out to be named Fido (from the Latin fides, faithful), Rover, and Spot. Others demand names like Folly and Silly. There is a tradition in the South of dogs being named Dammit, so that when their owners shout, “Come here, Dammit,” and are rebuked for using profanity, they can answer, deadpan, “That’s the dog’s name.” Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story called “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” about an individual named Toby Dammit who meets the devil on a bridge. The story puzzled literary critics for years until someone with practical experience pointed out that Toby Dammit was a dog. In a variation on that tradition, Austin journalist Molly Ivins had a dog named, well, a four-letter word that rhymes with “hit”.
Of course, there are dogs whose names resonate down through history, paw prints on the sands of time. All Elizabeth Barrett Browning addicts know that she had a cocker spaniel named Flush, immortalized in a fictional biography by Virginia Woolf. Another Victorian dog even more famous than Flush in his time was Dash, Queen Victoria’s King Charles spaniel, whose portrait was painted by Sir Edward Landseer and who is buried at Windsor Castle. Meriwether Lewis had a Newfoundland named Seaman that walked halfway across North America and back with him, and after his journey was completed wore a collar with an engraved silver plate attached to it that said, “I am the greatest traveler of my species. My name is Seaman, the dog of Capt. Meriwether Lewis.” Then there is Balto, the Siberian husky who pulled the sled that delivered the serum to Nome in 1925, and Laika, the little Russian stray who was shot into space just before Yuri Gagarin made the same trip.
One historic dog is nameless but is responsible for a timeless couplet. In 1734 the poet Alexander Pope presented Frederick, Prince of Wales, then living at Kew Palace, with a dog. On his collar were engraved the words, “I am his Highness’ dog at Kew / Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?”
Oh, yes. Abraham Lincoln’s dog was named Jip, which rhymes with “yip”.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk