"You can go anywhere you want, but don't go over there on that property. He's a mean old bastard, 'specially if he's been drinking. And his guinea hens bite." Uncle Ralph said "mean old bastard" in a very serious sounding way. And sounding very serious wasn't Uncle Ralph's forte. So I took heed to his warning. Not sure if I was more afraid of the man that lived on the property next to my uncle's lake house (that I'd never seen) or his attack guinea hens. My mother echoed the sentiment. She said the man who lived in the dirty, white trailer grown over with weeds and kudzu was "no-account white trash." Mama spoke ill of few folks so, again, I figured I needed to pay attention. On weeks spent at that lake house, I swam, I fished, I romped in the woods, I ate honeysuckle and tried to catch frogs and lightning bugs. But I stayed away from the mean old man's property.
I had the misfortune, though, of finding out how right Uncle Ralph was about the old man. I came in from fishing one afternoon and left my fishing pole on the porch while I went in to eat some lunch. After lunch, I planned on more fishing. But my pole was no longer on the porch. I looked and it was lying in the grass, halfway between the back porch and the outhouse. Then I noticed it was moving, slithering through the grass like a snake! Dumbfounded I ran off the porch to go chase my fishing pole. It was the most sickening sight of my life to realize it was being drug through the grass because - SOMEHOW - the hook on the end of my line had gotten hooked in some old dog's nose and the poor creature was trying to run itself loose! I chased. The dog ran. The more I chased the more it ran both in pain and terror. Finally I was able to coax it back to me and the poor old dog laid low to the ground, whimpering and shaking. Then it happened...the sound of birds, the sound of lake water lapping up against Uncle Ralph's dock and boat, the sound of cicadas grinding and singing, all these beautiful sounds of summer were shattered by a voice that sounded like gravel and liquor and Camel cigarettes. "What the hell are you doing to my dog??" It was the no-account white trash, mean old bastard, son of Satan that had previously lived only in legend, but now there he was walking towards me. I didn't notice that I had chased the dog far enough that I was now within a few feet of that nasty old trailer in the woods. My lips trembled but I fought the urge to cry. Even a small boy shouldn't show weakness when standing face to face with evil.
"Your dog got my fishing hook stuck in it's nose. I'm trying to figure out how to get it out without hurting him." Finally holding the poor dog, I realized the hook was through it's septum. The body of the hook was in one nostril. The point and the barb in the other. I mustered up all my courage and said "Do you have some needle-nosed pliers?" (because Uncle Ralph taught me that this was the painless way to get a hook out of your finger....snip it right behind the barb and then just back the hook out of your skin." The old man said "what in the hell you want with pliers? Come here dog!" The dog crawled over there to him, still dragging my pole. If I live to be 110, I'll never be able to forget what transpired next. The old man grabbed the end of the hook where it was tied to my line and just jerked it out with all his might. It ripped the dog's septum in two and the dog ran off yelping into the woods. I never saw it again. It was a right skittish dog anyway and I had the haunting notion that this probably wasn't the first time the mean old man had hurt him. So it never came back. And I damn sure never went anywhere near that old man's trailer again. But that dog's painful yelp was the worst sound ever to fall on this child's ears.
I sat by the big oak tree by the dirt road and cried. I don't know how long I sat there and cried. An hour? Two hours? Finally Mama came walking up the little drive calling me. "Timothy? Timothy?" "Tim" only went to "Timothy" if I was in trouble or if she was worried about me. She couldn't find me on the dock where I'd been catching and releasing Carp and Bluegill all day. She couldn't find me in the pile of wood I was trying to turn into a fort. So, for now, "Timothy" evoked concern. She became even more concerned when she saw that I was hiding and crying.
She couldn't get me to eat supper that night. She couldn't get me to fall asleep. Even a mother's warm touch and comforting words couldn't get the sound of that poor dog screaming out of my head. I wondered if it'd just run out into the dark woods and died. I wondered if it was now so afraid of people that it would just stay out in the woods and starve to death. I was at the age where one was trying to no longer be a little boy but I was not yet a teenager. So the humiliation of having my mother hold my hand while I cried only served to take me to an even lower rung of hell. I have many, many cherished memories of Uncle Ralph's lake house. That day wasn't one of them.
Fast forward to this morning. We were sitting on the patio and the two-legged lady of the house was brushing the other lady of the house (who has four legs.) The plan was for me trim her nails like I'd done many times before, using the comforting brushing as a diversion. It was a fine plan until the peace and quiet of a Sunday morning was kicked in the gut by a yelp quite similar to what I'd heard some 38 or 39 years ago in front of the mean old man's trailer. I had cut past the quick of one of the nails on her right front foot and blood was dripping on our patio. The blood dripped from her paw for a minute or two, until the pressure I was putting on it with a handful of napkins had blood doing what it's supposed to do and coagulating. A bite of cheese and a tummy rub and the world's sweetest Labrador Retriever was fine. However, the dummy who had snipped too close was a hot mess. I cried like a baby. Mama's comforting hand was replaced by my bride bringing me a cup of coffee and a bowl of the cheese grits. I don't think she was completely surprised by my reaction to hurting the dog - she knows I can't tolerate canine suffering of any kind. But she might've been surprised that I couldn't shake the whole episode...until I reminded her of my "dog meets fish hook trauma." I reckon, for the rest of my time here on planet earth, whenever I hear a dog's yelp the worst childhood memory of all rears it's ugly head along with it's gravely, Camel-cigarettes, liquored up voice. If there is a heaven and if I get there and if dogs really do go there, there's several dogs I want to track down and give a belly rub. Most of them I know by name. But I want to find that nameless one with the torn-up nose and tell it I'm really sorry that happened. I hope it will forgive me as quickly as the dog now lying at my feet has forgiven me.