Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Rubber Hose

The elementary school that I once attended through the sixth grade, as that school was structured back then, still stands many decades later. It is called an academy now, which means that some of the innocence of grade school has probably been turned into something more serious, that the students who currently attend through the eighth grade are probably asked to achieve more lofty goals. Of course, there were no computers back then, no video games, and no cellular telephones. Us neighborhood kids had each other, and baseball and football and after-school recreational activities. And, seemingly, we all had a dog.

In order to keep our snot-nosed, rascally, energetic minds concentrating on all things other than mischief in the summertime, the school district used the local elementary schools to sponsor various events. I remember that they showed movies sometimes, and sold candy on the cheap for us to put into our mouths during the movie, to keep us quiet enough to listen to the films. I remember winning two cakes one Saturday at a charity carnival of sorts, in the cakewalk I got lucky for a quarter each time, my parents left wondering what we were going to do with all of that pastry. But mostly, I remember a dog show, the first dog show I ever attended, it seemed like there were hundreds of dogs there.

Our dog was just one of a lot of dogs.

* * * *

There are a lot of dogs here in Tijuana, too. Obviously, the dynamic is different here, so far as pets go, and especially so far as dogs go. Here, some dogs are family pets much as they are in the United States of America like when I grew up. But there are also derelicts, unwanted mangy mutts, along with packs that roam wild up in the hills just south of me. Here, dogs aren’t so much intentionally mistreated as they are irresponsibly abandoned.

You get used to it, or you leave this place after a while.

Cultural attitudes differ where dogs are concerned all over the world. I’ll never forget one incident when I lived near Los Angeles, and I worked in aerospace and somehow many of us mingled accidentally during lunch. The topic was about dogs for whatever reason, and I recall one young quality engineer who was going on and on about his house and his dog, and how big and beautiful his canine specimen was. Engineers and people who worked in quality control and inspection were exchanging stories, and he was claiming how superior his dog was to all others.

One Filipino, a good inspector with an extremely heavy Tagalog accent and a highly entertaining mischievous streak was listening intently, when the young engineer’s story finally ended.

"So, where do you live again? I mean, exactly?" the Filipino asked, while doing the best that he could to keep a straight face.

'Oh, I live in the..."

Our laughter cut the engineer off in the middle of his answer, and only then did he get the reference to Filipinos occasionally considering dogs as a food source.

While this is a funny account and was, in essence, nothing more than a humorous exchange, dog is indeed consumed in many parts of the world. In conversations that I’ve had with people over the years, North Americans are particularly disgusted by the thought of it, which I find amusing. In India, where cows are sacred, I have to wonder what they think about North Americans eating beef. Or like here, in Mexico, where there isn’t any part of the cow that goes to waste, and like in many Middle American and South American countries as well.

But I imagine that even in the Philippines the family dog is spared the rotisserie skewer.

* * * *

It happened when I was so very young that I can’t recall the exact account of how the dog came into our home. I only remember that he was found in the desert, or the high desert, or somewhere else that rabbits live, because I was told that he chased them down in order to survive. He was a miniature poodle, medium-sized and black and in his youth probably the quickest dog I’ve ever seen. I remember the first time I saw him as he tore through the front yard, nothing could catch him, and it really was quite an amazing sight.

My father wound up with him, and named him Tiger.

Tiger became the family dog rather quickly, he was smart, and he loved my father more than anything. But he loved my brother and me too, and he wasn’t very demanding. He would want to be let out back to do his business occasionally, and he was fairly efficient at it so far as dogs go, and when he was ready to come inside, he was patient, and sat at the door. Tiger rarely barked without a good reason - if that dog got loud, then there was something unusual going on.

My father took him to the vet at some point and had him neutered, in the best interest of everyone.

When we let Tiger out into the front yard, he never strayed into the street, he had a great sense of what boundaries we wanted for him. He regarded strangers cautiously, but respectfully, although when taunted he wouldn’t hesitate to nip at some moron who might pose a threat to him or his family. When everyone was in the living room watching television, Tiger was there. Not on the couch, but sitting on the floor with his chin resting comfortably upon the coffee table.

One summer’s day my brother and me told my father about a dog show at the school we both attended, that the summer program was going to give out ribbons to the winners in the various categories. And it was free. The next day after he came home from work, my father got out the shears and gave Tiger a nice trim, and the dog never looked more handsome. Saturday arrived, so off we went. We never even bothered to bring a leash.

On Saturday, disappointment came quickly. The ribbons were going like hotcakes at the church breakfast, and my brother and me were looking pretty screwed. The first thing that they did was to have us walk our dog in a circle, which, when my turn came, I did without any problem. Even without a leash, Tiger just kept to my right side, and calmly walked the circle twice, and we returned to our seat beneath an olive tree where he sat and watched.

All of the dogs on leashes, perky and curious, didn’t seem to interest him.

The judges then went around and measured noses and tails and so on. Then, any dogs that could perform tricks were invited to compete, and they did, and some of the tricks were amazing. Unfortunately, we never thought to teach Tiger to perform a trick, it never occurred to us. I comforted my little brother, I told him that at least it was something to do. The afternoon went on, it was hot but not too hot. The dogs panted sporadically, but through it all, Tiger just sat and took it all in.

The last of the ribbons were being awarded. Tiger performed no tricks. He didn’t have a short or long nose, a short or long tail, any short or long hair. We were coming to the realization that, regardless how we ever felt about him, there really wasn’t anything special about Tiger except that he was our dog, the family dog, and even part of the family. I remember coming to terms with that, and being happy for it, almost proud of it.

The last award to be given out was for best of show. I was sure that it would go to a certain spaniel that had learned the amazing capability to throw a dry piece of food off of its nose and into the air, and then catch it in its mouth upon command. And what a beautiful dog! Third place was announced, and that very spaniel took white, which surprised me because I couldn’t imagine anything cooler than that trick. Second place went to some other dog, but I knew that we had no real chance at winning anything once that the spaniel had secured third place.

I was so proud of Tiger that day. Most of the other dogs, even the talented spaniel, were constantly overly curious about each other, and they would have rather sniffed some canine ass than to do anything else. Tiger looked on as me and my brother looked at each other and shrugged, so I started to get up and leave as the last ribbon was going to be awarded, there were a lot of people there and I was ready to get a head start home. The amplified voice cut through my pre-pubescent thoughts.

"And first place, best of show... Tiger!"

Somewhere in all of this mess of mine that made it through the flash floods of my past, I probably still have that ribbon.

* * * *

Tiger lived on, through my awkward teenage years and into high school. He got old, went blind, and then deaf, and had to rely on his sense of smell after that. He used his nose in order to know when my father came home, and always went crazy when dad walked through the door. It was all that Tiger had to look forward to in the end.

Sometimes Tiger would lie sleeping and he dreamed as all dogs do, whimpering occasionally. I always imagined that he dreamed of chasing rabbits. He walked with his head on a swivel, in case his memory and sense of touch somehow deceived him, so that in case he ran into anything, he was prepared to defer to the static object in front of him. One day, I was eighteen. Other dogs and cats had come and gone, I had buried most of them in the backyard and thought nothing of it.

One morning, my father called me into the kitchen before he went to work.

"I can’t do it. Here’s some money, take him to the vet and have him put down, bury him out back."

I nodded. I knew. It was time.

I grabbed a shovel and went out back, found a spot I had never dug into, and went deep. Tiger wanted to be there, so I let him witness me digging his grave. If I was going to cry, it would have been at that moment, but I thought about how maybe the kindest thing that we could do was this. I was strong. I dug six feet down, and grabbed a cardboard box.

"Sorry, boy, but you’ll be so much better off," I remember telling him.

I threw the box in the back seat, and Tiger in the front, and I rolled down the window for him. We took off, and for the last time, Tiger enjoyed the wind on his face, sticking his head slightly out the window and letting the air fill his nose. The vet was fairly close by. I carried the dog and the box inside. The veterinarian appeared.

"If you want, and it would help me, you can come inside and hold him," he said.

I entered with Tiger in my arms, it was as if he knew, he was calm, happy, resigned. I stood him upon the metal table, and the vet wrapped a thin-diameter rubber hose around the upper portion of one of Tiger’s limbs. A small needle attached to a small syringe was injected below the rubber hose. The vet then quickly, with one deft motion and nimble twist of fingers, undid the rubber hose and Tiger fell instantly into my arms, lifeless, heavy, and gone.

One six-inch long section of thin rubber hose is sometimes all that stands between life and death, between childhood and adulthood, between hello and goodbye.

* * * *

I drove home quickly with Tiger's body in the box in the back seat and then laid him to rest. The soil, dark and still moist, was heavy on the shovel, and at the end I replanted the sod that I had so carefully carved out and set aside two hours before. I went for the garden hose and watered it all down in order to make it less obvious that I had planted my childhood deep into the ground behind the house that I grew up in.

That one goodbye taught me that life hangs by the thin thread of a rubber hose, but I was, and remain, grateful for the lesson.


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