My dad called him Goosewing Garbage Gut Fredrick the First. Goosewing after the remote ranger station in Wyoming. My dad worked there for the U.S. Forest Service in 1963. That summer, he picked the free runt of a litter in Jackson Hole. While my father worked on horseback, the black Lab puppy curled up inside his shirt and slept. My dad said, “I think that’s why we were so bonded.” My dad’s crew put the dog in the bed of a truck once and drove to work. When they piled out of the cab, the dog had a big round belly from eating all their lunches. Hence, Garbage Gut. I just called him Fred.
Fred was there before my dad met my mom. Before they married and had me and my sister. My dad said Fred was never jealous of all the new arrivals to the pack. I look at old photos and notice a patch of white on his chest that I forgot about. Fred loved the water. My dad threw a retrieving buoy for him at a local pond. He only stopped because his arm got tired, not because Fred was done. I loved the water, too. Fred and I swam together. I can still feel his tail in my hands as he dragged me around like a slow waterskier.
I can also feel Fred’s neck as I hugged him on the kitchen floor when I was 10. I cried into his neck until my dad took him to the vet to put him down. He was 14 and his liver was failing.
This year, our good friends down the street had to put down their Whippet named Dash. He was my current dog’s good buddy. When they lost Dash, I thought about Fred. Several other people I know have lost their dogs this year, because things weren’t crappy enough. I was shaken by these deaths. What is it about dogs?
Not long after Fred died, my parents found another runt. A German shorthaired pointer. My mom said, “We picked him because he seemed more active than the rest of the litter.” That was a mistake. We named him Jack. Fred used to live outside. After the pink-bellied puppy stage, we took Jack out to live in Fred’s old doghouse. He literally chewed that house to the ground.
We trained Jack to hunt upland game birds like ruffed grouse and woodcock. He pointed for a little bit, but he couldn’t wait. Jack flushed the birds before we got close enough. We attached a bell to his collar so we could follow him as he ran berserk through the undergrowth. Finally, my dad tied about 30 feet of nylon rope to his collar to slow him down. When Jack briefly pointed, one of us ran up and stood on the rope to hold him back. Then the other hunter came up to flush the bird. This worked, sometimes. Mostly, we heard [dingalingalingalingzzzzzzzzzzzzz] as the bell and rope went by, followed by the sound of grouse taking off, invisible, somewhere ahead. Then, my dad’s frustrated scream: “JACK!”
My dad’s job with the U.S. Forest Service then took us from Michigan to New Hampshire. Our new home wasn’t as birdy and I was a high-schooler who had other things on his mind. So, Jack’s second career was mountain climber. My dad, Jack and I climbed dozens of peaks in the White Mountain National Forest. Jack loved it. I walked hundreds of miles with Jack, first hunting and then hiking.
I left home and joined the military. In 1989, when Jack was around 10, I was in pilot training with the U.S. Air Force in Phoenix.
My dad called me and said, “We had to put Jack down. I didn’t want you to hear it from anybody else.” Jack had cancerous growths throughout his body and he was in a lot of pain.
“Thanks for telling me, Dad,” I said.
I went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of whiskey. It was kind of funny. Who else would I hear it from, Pop? The CBS Evening News? USA Today? I sat on the stoop and watched the setting sun turn some thunderheads orange. I drank the bottle and wept. Even now, I miss Jack more than I miss most people.
Then, I went 20 years without a dog. I was busy learning to fly, getting married, having kids, and deploying to the Middle East. Toward the end of my military career, my wife and kids started a drumbeat about getting a dog. I warned them it would be like having a toddler that won’t grow up for the next 15 years. They were relentless. In 2011, we went to Animal Allies in Duluth and found a refugee from Iowa. We call him Leo. We think he’s a Lab/border collie mix.
My life can be measured in dogs. I think about my three dogs and wonder if that’s how a pine tree feels about people. Watching several shorter lives start and end, while your own life goes on and on. Dogs come and go faster than it takes to grow up and get a driver’s license. A dog’s accelerated life reminds us what we won’t admit to ourselves.
Leo and I just finished a project. We hiked all 65 miles of the Border Route Trail through the Boundary Waters. We hiked the Kekekabic Trail together in 2018. We ran the whole Superior Hiking Trail in sections in 2014. Leo traveled all 415 miles of those three connected trails with me. We’ve never hunted, but Leo sure took up where Jack left off as the outdoor athlete.
My dog teaches me. Leo lives permanently in the present. He chases every chipmunk like it was the first one he’s ever seen. He’s always ready to play outside. He takes pleasure in simple things like rolling on his back. There’s no deceit. He wants your food and he can’t hide that desire. He’s a creature outside of me, outside the bodies of my family. A soul that we take care of and bear witness to and love. He gets us out of our own heads. Leo is a blessing, especially now.
Leo has gone from shiny black to gray while we racked up all those miles. When you do the math, he’s a decade older than me. Like autumn, Leo’s time is finite. Winter will come. Leo’s life will end. He’s the only dog my kids have known. Leo is their Fred. He even has Fred’s white chest. I’m trying to prepare for the end, but I’ll fail. When Leo goes, I will break.
I want to write something worthy of Leo. Worthy of all my dogs. Of all dogs. Until I do, you should read a poem called “A Dog Has Died” by Pablo Neruda. Here’s part of it:
Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit.
There are no good-byes
for my dog who has died,
and we don’t now and never did
lie to each other.
Recently, my family walked along the Grand Portage Trail in Jay Cooke State Park. Leo chased squirrels under the fiery foliage of the oaks and maples. We laughed as he happily plunged into the St. Louis River. He was the embodiment of pure honesty. We saw the infinite now through Leo’s eyes.
I don’t want to live without a dog ever again.