by Christopher Bacas
As a child, I feared dogs. A neighbor kept his German Shepherds, Heidi and Sarge, in a large pen along the alley. The yard and house, his parents’, were the biggest for many blocks. On the alley side, the chain link fence stood 10 feet. The dogs would charge out of their houses silently and hurl their bodies at the fence snarling and barking. I was caught unaware at the fence a few times. My stomach curdled and legs buckled. My mother’s family are dog people. My grandparents cared for a series of large overfed dogs who cavorted in the swamps surrounding their Massachusetts home and otherwise slumped under the kitchen table waiting for my grandmother to put together meals of breakfast scraps bound with maple syrup or for treats from a cookie jar on her counter. My uncles had shambling dogs who would leap into rough water off Cape Cod to retrieve balls from seaweed choked waves. As their fur dried, they smelled of sour salt water and general funk. At the rented house, they showed a gentle deference to humans and lolled on the grass or carpet while my cousins and I ate and talked.
My wife brought her dog Tangles, a whippet mix, with her when we moved in together. Tangles’ jaws and teeth rattled for no apparent reason. Her bony head was easy to rub. I told her I would “cook her brain” with the friction generated as I stroked her skull. She lived sixteen sweet years as my wife’s constant companion and then two more after we spent a small fortune on tumor surgery. After Tangles passed, we fostered a few dogs, each different in size and personality. We got involved in a Brooklyn shelter run by a group of animal-loving, human-hating misanthropes. After my work setting up their facility, the animals they cared for suffered unspeakably and thousands of dollars disappeared in a haze of prescription drugs and acrimony. Luckily, we rescued and placed with family a small, quirky dog named Big Man. He is the one light of that weird, sad time.
The time came to choose our dog, the one we would care for together. I wanted a dog like my uncles brought to the beach; big and fun. A British trainer sent us to a tony daycare in TriBeCa. She told me to ask for a big dog named Sam. The worker there brought me a wolf-like black dog, with the admonition “Sammy don’t play, uh-uh”. Out of the kennel, Sam oblivious to me, our walk along the river in Battery Park City was a cartoon, with me dragged behind a charging rhino.
Knowledgeable and confident with dogs, my wife found Sam tough. She asked if he was what I really wanted. Now, I backpedaled. We called the trainer. When I described the dog, she said ” You were to ask for Samantha, not Sam.” I returned to the expensive kennel. Samantha was a beautiful female pit bull. Her body long and powerful, she walked strong and serene past both dogs and people. I stopped at a bench facing the Hudson and asked her up. I lifted under the belly, turned her and held her chest to my face. She was taut, but didn’t struggle. Her fur smelled slightly of urine and medicine. I looked into her eyes and spoke gently to her. She returned my gaze with equanimity. I was confused. The big black dog was the type I wanted. Powerful and impulsive, he seemed manageable with work. Samantha was an walk-in, a gentle star child. I made a decision, Sam came home with us. His paper work gave his full name as Samson, a name synonymous with physical strength.
We bought food and toys and my wife showed me how to begin with commands and training. When Sam was challenged by anything, he rounded the apartment like a torpedo; 80 pounds at warp speed. I soon found out he hated all other dogs on sight. There was a 5 second countdown and he would charge them. I learned evasive maneuvers like standing between parked cars until the dog passed, or just turning heel and speeding away. Once sighted, Sam’s whole body swiveled violently over and over to see his foe. Many times, I tripped over the leash or his body. I learned to issue warnings and apologies to other dog walkers and pedestrians from greater and safer distances. Our British trainer assured us Sam was great with her dogs. What were we doing to make him behave this way? Did we ever have a big dog before? There wasn’t a paid place for Sam in any rescue group. If we we brought him to the city shelter, he would be euthanized quickly. She became emotional describing how he would die confused and very scared. We had Sam for the long haul.
Within days of Sam’s arrival, My wife brought home a pound of chocolate fudge from a visit with her mother. In the chaos of unpacking and unused to an untrained dog, Sam found and ate most of the fudge. In each of the next 24 hours he barked to go outside at least once for a bout of noisy nuclear propelled diarrhea. I filled bottles with water and bleach to wash the sidewalk. My wife dissolved in tears near the end of that sleepless night. I brought a folding chair outside, sat in it, wrapped his leash on my arm like tefillin, and slumped over as the sun rose, Sam happily panting beside me. The quality he presented first was absolute poise in the face of physical pain. No matter how hard he hit his head on a street sign lunging at a 6 pound Pomeranian, he was cheerful and ready to go after a shake off.
We employed a trainer. He was expensive and a real Brooklyn Italian guy. He gave up a high pressure brokerage job to learn the art of training. His fixes for Sam, bark-like vocal effects accompanying snaps with the leash (choke-collar attached) to regulate his walking, had a clear but limited effect. The aggression continued. During a Halloween training session on a narrow side street, something enraged Sam. To counter, the trainer gave me a fistful of chain links to throw on the ground next to him to get his attention. When the links hit the ground, Sam leaped repeatedly with terrifying force and snarled as all around crowds of costumed children skipped from every curb, their parents looking on in fear. The hound of Hell unleashed in Flatbush! The trainer said only “wow….” He planned to consult with his teachers and get back to us. In the interim, his dog suddenly became ill and passed soon after. We didn’t hear from him for a long time. We were on our own, creating a structure for Sam to feel safe-commands, food, walks, toys and as much affection as he could stand.
Soon another issue showed up. After a long work day and a late night gig, punctuated by a spectacular thunder storm, I arrived home to find the kitchen torn apart. A swath of plaster wall 8 feet wide and 4 feet high lay in chunks and eddies of dust. Lathe was snapped off the studs with horse hair like teeth on a wooden comb. A tall cabinet on wheels leaned precariously against the wall, its contents pouring out. Sam stalked the kitchen, undaunted, still panting in the summer heat. Until that moment, I had never thought of harming an animal. I brushed my teeth and went to bed. Despite clouds of dust, it took me a few days to decide to clean the mess. The super came later, looked at the wreckage and the dog and said “oh Sammy, you been a very bad boy”. He nailed plywood sheets to the studs. I handed him a hundred-dollar bill.
Thunder and lightning terrified Sam, sending him scratching and burrowing. We bought a fold up crate made of steel wire. The base was reinforced with ¼ inch tubing. We began to lock our dog in the crate if there was even the slightest chance of a storm. Away from the house, a rumble of thunder brought a panic we couldn’t shake until we returned home. On one of those returns, we found the bedroom received a remodeling- the corner walls opened up, piles of plaster and wood, and heavy pieces of furniture tipped over. Unable to pull the crate’s door in, Sam pulled the base with his teeth to make an opening under the door. He wriggled his powerful body through the small space and escaped under the still latched door and wrecked the room. We bought a solid sided plastic crate and used coat hangers and a broomstick to brace the door shut. I stabilized the crate with two 45lb kettle bells to keep him from rocking it on its side. That solution stuck.
With our cats, the dog was actually playful. He didn’t seem to realize he outweighed them by a factor of 10. The two cats took very different approaches to the big black dog. The male cat saw the playful moves as a prelude to all out war and drew blood from a perplexed dog’s nose and tail. The female parried his moves deftly and asserting her seniority, brought out a tender side in Sam. The dog began to gently nibble on her back and outstretched neck with his giant teeth. She favored his rear, snuggling her nose in under his tail and twisting her body around.
In the dead of winter, on an NFL playoff weekend, we took a friend to Dumbo. We parked on the steepest hill in Brooklyn, Gold St, one medium-length block sloping down to cobblestone Water St. Sam was in the car, leashed and ready for a walk. With the car toasty warm, the three of us took a quick detour to get hot chocolate to-go, poured by an exquisite local chocolatier. On our way back, at the foot of the hill, between two huge buildings whose astronomical rents recently made neighborhood the most expensive in our pricey city, we heard his familiar fear bark, one long beat followed by an equal silence, urgently repeated. Across the street from the car, a runway-model woman walked two tiny dogs on leash. She chatted animatedly on her phone. Sam was in the front seat, jumping at the driver’s side widow. With each downward move, his paws scratched at the glass. Imperceptibly, the car began to move. I had neglected to put it in gear and Sam’s lunges released the parking break. It picked up speed and we began to run toward it. The woman across the street stopped and her dogs returned fire at Sam, by now a raging T-Rex in black fur. Our car had 20 yards to travel before it would strike and likely demolish the rear end of the next parked car. My wife and I placed our hands on the hood of the car and slowed it. She pushed from the side closest to the curb and I warned her to get out of the way. She jumped to the curb and I followed her. My trailing leg stayed a second too long in the gutter and my calf was pinched between the two bumpers. I screamed, pulled my leg out and collapsed to the sidewalk. Pain seared my brain while barking and general chaos continued all around. Sam never paused after impact. The woman with the small dogs called for an ambulance, but kept her dogs close enough to make our dog even more aggressive, despite my wife’s pleading. My calf swelled to Mr Universe size and soon paramedics appeared with a chair to carry me. In the truck, I couldn’t see my wife intercepting the cops and the hilarity that ensued as officers wrote an accident report. A motor vehicle accident requires an operator. Since a dog was at the wheel, he was de facto “operator.” Sam wasn’t a human being, though. My agony and Sam’s enmity enlivened their boring Sunday. In the emergency room, my leg showed nothing they could treat and while I waited for them to bring me a cane and some ibuprofen, my beloved Steelers began their Super Bowl run.
During the months I hobbled on a cane, I came to view Sam as an alien; a nonverbal, supremely strong, cunningly self-sufficient life form intent only on survival. My deadened response after his kitchen renovation hardened into anger I wouldn’t process. I resented him and withdrew. My (first) dog acted like a dog; he ran ceaselessly after sticks until he puked lakes of water, barked fearsomely at the window or door and was alert to every sound or sight in his domain. My Aunt and Uncle’s yard in Massachusetts was his Valhalla. There he adopted a regal bearing: surveying the perimeter, barking commands, chasing sticks with Olympian grace and speed.
He didn’t look at either of the humans in his family as friend. Even more vexing to me, my superior intellect, an accidental byproduct of evolution, didn’t impress him. My wife was frustrated and redoubled her efforts to make his life better any way possible. She set up a web page to find him a home where he had more room and the chance be outdoors in a safe environment. With her untiring heart, she found a Pennsylvania family who saw a resemblance to a beloved lost pet. My wife warned them of the fearsome wheels turning in his anvil strong head and delivered Sam to them. The first night, the family locked him in the basement and went to a movie. When they returned, they found a fancy couch meticulously disemboweled. The resemblance ended there. They wouldn’t allow him even another minute in their home.
Once Sam returned to us, more than ever ours, I began to change. I took him on longer and longer walks every day without fail. On frigid days, I strapped on a backpack filled with weights and took him up and down the marble steps of our 5 floor walk up to the amusement of my West Indian neighbors. I lay next him on the floor hugging him hard while he panted, oblivious. I made his name a chant whose variations became cantillations that bound me deeper in love with his inscrutable soul. His stomach, never particularly strong, necessitated pressure cooked meats and rice. I became his personal chef, trainer and corner man. We used the butcher specials at Brooklyn’s teeming Chinese groceries to fill our freezer with future meals. He was family-food, exercise and acceptance of his faults were the bedrock of my love.
His intestines began to fail in prodigious and gruesome ways. We returned from work to find rivers of shit glistening on our cheap carpet. These eruptions made clear his uncertain age and unknown early life still added up to an old dog whose biblical might wouldn’t make him immortal. After delivering my wife to a fascist summer camp for spoiled rich girls and moving her into a cabin, the three of us walked to the lake dock at dusk. We put our feet in chilly black water and Sam sat between us. His leash dangled from his neck, as always, in case we had to restrain him. After a few minutes of repose, Sam leaped gracefully into the water. He had never learned to swim. Despite our assistance, the best he could ever do was flail with powerful foreleg stokes and vainly search for the bottom with his hind legs, his face a rictus of rare panic. Now, in disbelief, I pulled his floating leash. He surfaced, looked at us and quickly sank. We jumped in and frantically searched for him. Water too deep for leverage, I hugged him to my body, kicked hard and heaved his front paws on the dock, then pushed his butt up and over. He walked a few feet, turned, shook himself off, coughed up some water, shook again and sat down. We shimmied onto the dock and collected ourselves.
I spent that summer sleeping next to him every night. He would walk on the mattress, turn around a few times and plop down hard, his body overlapping mine. I rubbed his head, stroked his back and chanted his name before we slept. In the night, he would get up and roam before laying down again nearby. I rose early to take him on long walks in the relative cool. He was slower than before and sometimes unresponsive even to nearby dogs. I appreciated his new benevolent attitude. When we passed the door to our building, he stopped short and waited, uncharacteristically looking at me directly. At the beach kennel where he stayed during our vacations, he didn’t finish a week’s allotment of food. The vet recommended appetite stimulants. “He’s old” they told me as Sam successfully fought off the attendants and I hoisted him to the table. Our walks continued. His ribs protruded. He panted and nodded. He drank water in epic lashings and puked it back or pissed it out Niagara-like in the side street. He went to the door and barked to go out, jumping down the three wide steps to the building entrance on shaky legs.
Sunday night before Labor Day, I lay next to him on floor. He panted constantly and struggled to keep his head up, snapping it back over and over as it dropped. I stroked him and chanted, finally getting him to stretch his neck out. I dozed a few times while he wheezed. My wife and I pressed each other on a plan, fears and doubts oozing from every word. Still unresolved, at dawn, I called the 24 hour vet and we headed out into a glorious sunny day. Sam leapt the three steps as one and landed well, walking easily to the car.
The clinic was pristine and filled with nameless machines that reassured and terrified all at once. In a spotless conference room, the concerned young doctor told us Sam’s lungs were riddled with tumors. He was already in an oxygen chamber. We went to him and I held him, my wife spooning close behind to complete the embrace. He looked tired for once but wide eyed and panted hotly on my neck. I chanted to him with a cracked voice and my wife said her sweet words, her beautiful dog-loving heart overflowing. I watched the procedure on an underwater camera, saltwater clouding my view. He seemed to resist death and could have been asleep and until the doctor confirmed. We finished paperwork amid potted plants and well-equalized pop music. In the parked car, I sobbed until a call brought an aide to the window with a forgotten item, Sam’s leash.
Sam’s black, frayed leash was a DNA strand with all the information on his magnificent, scary life. It bound me to him from our first confusing encounter, then became the tool of our training (read: futile effort to exert control). It protected him from the dire consequences of feral urgings and acted as talisman for our walks and hikes. It was the swinging snake that wriggled to my chants at the door. The leash draped over my neck now conjures in me sadness and awe at Sam’s fierce run.