Jon Alexander / Saturday, March 14 @ 7 a.m. / Angels and Desperados
ANGELS and DESPERADOS: Pandemics and Immunities
I’ve been hearing on the radio and TV that there’s a “pandemic” out there. High schools have been closed and even the Ivy School kids have been sent home with instructions to pick up their half-million tuition instruction on the internet. Love to imagine what Lori Loughlin coulda done with this plague. Word is that stock market panic has caused the worst drops (can’t say “crash”) since 2008, and the middle class may not be just standard and poor anymore. More frightening is the word spinning off the D.C. Beltway that fear has become so overwhelming that there may even be bipartisan support on coronavirus and Covid-19 bills. Or any bills. And here at home, the spectre of infection has grown so large that my sister, traveling all the way from Brookings, only to find that Walmart had had such a run on toilet paper such as to leave the Wally shelves bare of this medical necessity.
Yes, I do poke fun at the hysteria and the emotional hemophilia attending this real threat – mostly caused by a supreme, unjustified and inexcusable lack of preparedness, predominantly on the part of our federal government. All of that said, I do find some solace in he fact that some things continue to exist and shine, even in the darkness of the pandemic and for that, this article is dedicated.
Somehow, last night, looking down at a pair of beautiful and handsome, loving brown eyes that were looking back at me, I remembered my first love affair.
It was the summer of 1957 and we were driving back to north Jersey after visiting my Mom’s kin in Iowa. My Dad drove the Olds family station wagon into a small town just off of I-70 east of Zanesville, Ohio. Just down the road from the motel, there was a small sign for a dog kennel and sale. The ubiquitous pony request having been firmly 86’d by the master of the house, my kid sister and I had set upon wanting a puppy. We walked up and down the chicken coop cages until we came upon a mixed breed mutt that looked to be a cross between a Collie and a chocolate lab. The owner said he estimated him to be somewhere aroun2-3 years old and would let him go for $15. He was gangly, undernourished, rib bones protruding, but had a joyful countenance, tail wagging with a large grin that paused momentarily to lick my face, as if to say, “Please, get me outta here.” The two tone wail of my sister and me must’ve been too much for my old man, who eventually relented, putting “Spike” into the back of the Olds with Lorna and I.
I was considered a “troubled child” by school shrinks and authority figures, prone to fights, under achieving scholastically, eventually getting into college, largely on all state soccer prowess. Through all of the tongue lashings, butt whippings, south bound grades and first rocky voyages into affairs of the heart, Spike remained my best friend, teaching me more about life, loyalty and love, than all of the rest.
I looked down at my sidekick “Jake” again last night, thinking of Spike and the words of a song come to mind, as they often do when writing this column. Testament to a man’s love of his dog, I can hear Pirates of the Mississippi singing their song “Feed Jake,” the words painting different pictures, while somehow going to a least common denominator in the eyes looking back at me and the miles across the years:
I’m standin’ at the crossroads in life
And I don’t know where to go
You know you’ve got my heart, babe
But my music’s got my soul
Let me play it one more time
Tell the truth and make it right
And hope they understand me.
Several years later, in 1970, I got the call in my Kentucky dorm room from Mom that Spike was dying and had a few days left. The following morning, I went to a stone cutter in Lexington and had a headstone cut for him, simply engraved, Spike, Beloved Friend, 1955-1970. I can still recall driving all night back to Jersey with that stone in tow, wiping the tears away through half of Pennsylvania-getting home to find that a massive injection of steroids had gotten him past his death spiral, while buying him another 8 months. That stone that he cheated death with on that date, I’m told, still lies there behind an old brown house, weeds pulled out of respect by some unknown hand.
Now looking down at Jake, the tune returns:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I die before I wake, feed Jake
He’s been a good dog
My best friend, right through it all
If I die before I wake, feed Jake.
Looking back, broken hearts and bad drunks, you swear you’re never going back there. Until…
…decades later, a century passed, the odometer busting triple six figures and you’ve been up and down more than any standing eight count should allow, without your corner throwing in the towel, you find yourself blessed with a job doing social work for the Yurok Tribe. As close to God’s work as it gets, laboring, after all the other systems have failed, to try and put the pieces back in the battered, abused, damaged, downtrodden and fallen, the song returns....
Now Broadway’s like a sewer
Bums and hookers everywhere
Winos passed out on the sidewalk
Doesn’t anybody care?
Some say ‘He’s worthless, just let him be!’
I for one would have to disagree
And so would their Mamas
It’s a beautiful Fall afternoon and I’m returning from the Hoopa reservation. Driving the 40 mile stretch of Bald Hills Road, the switchbacks so sharp, you swear you could meet yourself on some of ‘em, it’d had been an exhausting day, encountering a young man who’d tried to stab me in the face with some sharpened elk horns. Burdened with a disease that had once afflicted me, just another fellow addict who had made his latest balloon payment on hell, I understood where he was coming from. Weary from the encounter’s sadness, I look up ahead on this lonely, barren stretch of wilderness road to see a brand spankin’ new Black Escalade with Arizona plates, pulled over on the side of the now dirt road. Given the possibilities of that equation, you have the feeling it adds up to one of three things, equaling: white, brown or green. As I pass the vehicle, a hand goes up and you slow to inquire if help’s needed. I back up slowly to see two middle aged guys with wraparound shades, skin heads and at least one very prominent shamrock prison gang tattoo, all adding up to the realization that what I’m packing has to be significantly less efficacious compared to what these fellows are. Upon inquiry, I’m told that they’re there to meet someone about purchasing some of that land. Knowing neither God nor the Creator can buy that land, I bid them a good day pretty quick, but not before the guy riding shotgun tells me to look out for a dead dog around one of the sharp corners a couple miles down the road.
Sure enough, three miles down the road and around a 160 degree bend, there’s a dog lying smack in the middle of the road. He looks to be a mix between a healer, pit, maybe some terrier thrown in. His bones are the only thing holding up his skin, along with a host of ticks the size of dimes. There’s a 4 foot stretch of rope around his neck that’s frayed at the other end, where he probably broke off, most likely a guard dog on a dope grow. People starve ‘em to make them mean and alert. Just when I begin to drive around him, I see his chest expanding ever so slight. Knowing I can’t just drive off and leave him. I open my government ride door, crouch behind it while looking around to see if it might be a set-up-strange things have been known to happen out on Bald Hills Road where there’s no reception, no black and whites, just your wits and whatever you’re packing . Nothing in sight, I slowly walk up to the poor little fella whose chest is working, real shallow, any one maybe being his last. You know you’re not supposed to
have animals in the government vehicles. You know he’s probably dying. You know he’s probably going to leave a mess if he punches out during the 90 minute drive you still have left. You know you won’t be able to just toss him on the side of the road when that happens. Yeah, you know a lot of stuff, but all you can see is a brown and white mutt, on his last legs 45 years ago, as well as something that you like to think lives in all of us, that binds us together and lets us believe that it’s a blessing to be able to give someone or thing a second chance. Especially when you’ve been on the receiving end more than a time or two.
So I take out my foul weather jacket and put it over him, placing the hood over his face and head and pick him up. Halfway back to the SUV, the hood flops down and his head kicks up and you know you’re gonna get bit, only to have him lick your face. I get back to town and he’s still alive, so I bed him down for the night in the garage. Next morning, he’s still hovering. I take him to Dr. Mark Franusich and his staff, angels all, at the Four Paws Animal Hospital, where he gets hydrated, neutered, rabies shots administered, IV fed, 40 or 50 ticks removed and completely curled under nails clipped. All of this done with an eye to having the Humane Society or County Dog Shelter take him and adopt him out. That was a Friday afternoon when I got him back, so I was stuck with him all weekend. And somehow, by Monday morning, we found ourselves fighting for that damned bed.
That was three years ago. I got engaged, then de-engaged, but son-of-a-gun, if he didn’t spoon up to her every night on her side of the bed, and now me, wherever I am in that half acre, California King, she just had to have. What the heck, long as I didn’t have to put my head near anything Mr. Pillow was hawking. It didn’t take long to see, or feel, looking into the eyes of that once dying soul, that he knew, knows, a certain someone had saved him, and maybe, just maybe, he’d done a stretch of saving that fella also.
I guess the point I’m circuitously getting around to is how these beasts that Thomas More said were created to show us innocence, somehow find a way to bring out the good in us, no matter how deeply buried sometimes.
This afternoon, I’m sitting at my desk and soon, find myself wistfully looking out at the Battery Point Lighthouse and beyond, to where I can see Spike in the back of an old Oldsmobile station wagon, rolling down I-70 past Zainesville, Ohio, curled up with two sleepy kids, which now returns to this cur named Jake, curled up at my feet below the desk.
And it’s hard to escape the thread of the Pirate’s song, about a dog named Jake and how we’re all connected, how we all need each other and how incredibly blessed we are when we just reach out and touch something that provides an immunity to any epidemic the universe may throw at us.
And yeah, Jake, I’ll be there all through the night and in the morning to feed you. As you do me.
Jon Alexander lives in Crescent City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.