Spot had about a one-year stay with the Clouse’s in 1957.
An intact male, unpedigreed Cocker Spaniel, Spot and I shared many happy moments. We saved all the unpleasant ones for the adults in the house.
According to the Internet, which knows everything, Cocker Spaniels were the most popular breed in America in the mid-50s, which probably accounts for Spot. You don’t see many Cocker Spaniels these days among all the Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Jack Russell Terriers, Poodle crosses, Bulldogs, and Yorkies.
Thanks to that once-popular breed I received the verbal gift of a lifetime, a glorious malapropism offered gratis by a fellow who told me his dog was a “cockle Spaniard.”
For all I know, Spot was a cousin of his contemporary Cocker Spaniel celebrity from Belton named Checkers, Richard Nixon’s dog. The Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential election had been of no concern to me in 1952, nor did I have the slightest interest in the fact that the Republican candidate for Vice President was involved in a scandal for accepting campaign contributions of dubious legality. Soon-to-be President Eisenhower wanted him to resign from the Republican ticket, but Nixon saved his candidacy with what is now known as the “Checkers Speech.”
It was one of the early highlights of American political theater in the Age of TV. In the nationally televised address (not that many viewers in Laredo could watch it,) ‘Tricky Dick’ first promised to return the unethically obtained contributions, and ended with Checkers:
“One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something — a gift — after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little Cocker Spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl —Tricia, the 6-year-old — named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
By invoking Checkers, the girls, and poor Pat not having a mink coat to wear in that phony, poor-me sentimentality we would learn to expect from him, Nixon tugged at enough suckers’ heartstrings to move public opinion, and Eisenhower didn’t kick him off the ticket. The Republicans won the elections of 1952 and ’56, and as the cliché goes, “the rest is history.” But just think: without Checkers from Belton, there wouldn’t have been a Watergate! And I might have had a different first pet.
Moving from the bright lights of the main stage of American history and over to the little sideshow on the Rio Grande called Laredo, a town where there had only been a local TV station since the year before, Spot came to the Clouse’s on Garfield Street one day in 1957.
My mother had firm rules about household cleanliness, and they included a non-negotiable, universal ban on pets indoors. That rule meant that Spot had to live outdoors, mainly in the fenced back yard. No doubt he would have lived with us even more briefly had he been a night barker, but he didn’t interrupt sleep that I can remember.
With time’s passage and more adult tastes in matters of domestic cleanliness than I had at age eight, I look back on my mother’s inflexibility about Spot’s presence inside the house with more benevolence than I did 60 years ago.
There was some arguing with her about what seemed an arbitrary and unfair rule, but there was no change in the ban. Spot was not ever to enter the house. Rules being made to be broken, we did sneak a few madcap run-throughs, complete with crazy scritchy-scratchy toenail noise and slipping foot pads on the slick shine of the kitchen’s perfectly clean linoleum floor. It was a close contest between us as to who was having more fun in the rule breaking dashes from back to front door.
Being banned from the shade and cooler air inside, Spot dealt with the scorching heat of the August Dog Days according to his canine instincts. He earned a swift cuff to the head for digging down to the cooler earth in the flower garden where he reclined on what had been a bed of pretty petunias. He slept in the shade next to the crawlspace vent on the north side of the house, where there wafted a breeze ten degrees cooler than the daily 105°.
I realize now that the real reason for the no-dog-indoors prohibition was the omnipresence of ticks in the dry Laredo ecosystem. Spot and I must have been very attractive to the blood-suckers, since we always had a couple of them on us after rolling around in the grass wrestling and playing “Fight-n-Bite.” I usually found them when they tickled me as they crawled around under my tee-shirt or across my forearm. I’d pinch them with my thumbnail and flick them off without thinking. I pulled enough of them out of my scalp or off my legs that it’s a wonder I didn’t get Lyme’s Disease, tick fever, or any one of the other dozen health hazards these pests carry.
Spot swept ticks out of the yard like a vacuum cleaner. I’d be petting him and often I’d feel the lump where a swollen tick was siphoning off its half cc of canine blood. I pulled them out and squished them between my fingers. Then I’d wipe the bloody fingers on my pants, stains that were much to my mother’s dismay on laundry days.
However, the larger tick issue was the accumulation of the damned things inside Spot’s floppy ears. His ear flaps veiled the creepy infestation from squeamish eyes during the week, until the Saturday afternoon ritual of removing them. My father did most of the plucking, while my job was to hold the uncooperative patient still.
One by one, Dad pulled the garrapatas out of Spot’s ears and dropped them into a glass jar of gasoline. It took half an hour to finish the treatment when there were so many ticks in them that Spot’s ears looked like a blue-gray pomegranate. Occasionally, I’d look down at my arm holding Spot motionless to see one of the bugs attempting an escape from the methodical tweezers, crawling from dog to boy.
If children hate repetitive tasks, so do adults. My father was getting tired of the weekly Saturday afternoon dog de-ticking, so he inquired around town about a way to take care of the problem once and for all. A rancher customer at Yeary’s gave him a bottle of cattle dip to try out. I can still picture the indigo color that made the pesticide look just like the Mrs. Stewart’s Liquid Blueing my mom put in the white clothes wash.
The next Saturday afternoon after lunch, I held the dog still while my father filled the gasoline jar with bloated ticks. We followed with a thorough shampooing. Then Dad poured the blue goo over Spot, and we rubbed it in, making sure to get it worked into the vulnerable ear area. Holding squirming Spot still in a head lock was hard during that operation, I suppose because he found the chemotherapy in his ears, eyes, and mouth distressing.
When we finished, Spot did a series of nose-to-tail shakes and raced off to a corner of the yard where he hid under a pyracantha bush.
It was just another summer Saturday afternoon… except that later that day, after the family dined on a bag of 18¢ hamburgers from the Malinche Glass Kitchen, I noticed that Spot wasn’t on sentry duty out the back door.
I called and whistled.
Out in the back yard there was nothing stirring.
Where was Spot?
I thought I heard a moan from under the bushes, but it was too dark to see Spot back where he was sprawled out.
Obviously, something was wrong.
I called my father, and he came out with a flashlight whose beam illuminated a ghastly sight under the pyracantha. There was something under there that had black and white spots, but the shape was all wrong. What was twitching under the bush looked more like a manatee than a dog. Spot had swollen terribly, and he was clearly in mortal distress. The dip was deadly for more than just the ticks.
My father gasped, “Oh, Danny, we’ve killed him!” which wasn’t that much of a jump to conclusions given the visual evidence in the dim, yellow light.
The drama of the moment didn’t completely sink in. No scientist, I hadn’t hypothesized the connection between the cattle dip and Spot’s distress.
The drama I did notice, however, was the tear-jerker speech my father was addressing to the pet dog dying under the pyracantha, “Oh, Spot! I’m so sorry.” I was impressed because my dad was not inclined to emotional theatrics. With a division of labor typical of many marriage partners, Dad stood aside and left all the arias to my mom center stage with the back of her wrist pressed against her forehead.
I woke up the next morning expecting to help my dad dig a big hole in the garden for Spot’s bloated mortal remains. But astonishingly enough, there was Spot again in his accustomed size and shape, tongue hanging out, wagging his tail on the porch outside the kitchen door. Through what miracle I have no idea, but Spot had survived the toxic cattle dip, and there he was, needless to say, tick-free, and ready to play. I doubt the overnight brush with death under the pyracantha bush made Spot any stronger, but it did damn near kill him.
Of course, the ticks were back a month later.
However, Spot’s tenure as the family pet was not for much longer.
He had two bad habits, both life-threatening.
The first one, chasing cars that drove by out in the street, was extremely dangerous, indeed, but Spot’s guardian angel always snatched him away from the onrushing tires of death just in time.
I saw in a Boy Scout magazine an illustrated article about how you could support the efforts of a car-chasing dog’s guardian angel by tying a home-made shin knocker to his collar. The Pavlovian behavior modification device consisted of a twelve-inch piece of wood sawn from a broom handle and tied in its middle to a line descending from the dog collar. As Spot ran after a car, the piece of wood knocked him painfully on his shins. Most of the time he slowed down to let the car speed away in a cloud of dust down unpaved Garfield Street.
No, death by auto was not to be Spot’s fate.
The effectively fatal one was his habit of biting people. He gave me some pretty impressive bruises on my forearms and legs with snapping bites during our rough-housing in the grass. There had also been complaints of felonious nips at guests’ heels and at the calves of the Atalayas who came knocking on the door.
One day Spot bit my neighbor and playmate Tony Ramirez on the cheek hard enough to draw blood, which slapped the dog into forty days of veterinary quarantine for rabies testing, and the long series of painful abdominal rabies shots for poor Tony.
The bother and expense must have been the tipping point for my parents.
Spot never returned from the vet.
I came home from school one afternoon to find a new red bicycle that replaced the little green one with training wheels that I’d learned to ride on. The new Schwinn from Western Auto with 24″ wheels was nothing fancy: a 1-speed with pedal brakes, but it sure made a great faux motorcycle noise as the folded playing cards clothes-pinned to the fender brackets flapped against the spinning spokes. Repairing the hundreds of thorn punctures taught me to fix flat tires. Eventually it was pimped out with a completely unnecessary battery-powered headlight, ape-hanger handlebars, and multi-colored streamers on the rubber hand grips.
For 40 years I told myself the story of how my parents disposed of Spot the Snapper and attempted to anesthetize the loss of my pet dog with a new bicycle. The official story was that he’d moved away to live on a ranch.
And then in 1995, I found out the rest of the story.
The mid-90s were the equivalent of technology’s Stone Age, the early days of email and the World Wide Web.
AOL’s “You’ve got mail,” message was ubiquitous enough to be the title of Nora Ephron’s 1998 re-make of Ernst Lubisch’s “Shop Around the Corner.” Windows 95 had put affordable computers in millions of American homes. I was regularly getting chiding messages from the distraught mothers of sons away at college with similar [email protected]… email addresses. It was fair: I hadn’t dutifully corresponded with my mom, and now boys of a new generation were also neglecting to send messages home from far away campuses. There was the weekly chain mail message exhorting me in ALL CAPS to “STOP THE US POSTAL SERVICE FROM REQUIRING A STAMP ON EVERY EMAIL MESSAGE!”
Through the new magic of The Internet I was receiving forwardable new jokes every day from old Laredo friends like Les Norton. “A rabbi, a priest, and a preacher walk into a bar…” and so forth.
Out of the blue, my inbox had messages from long-lost classmates with subject lines like “Oye, güey!” and “are you Danny Clouse from Laredo?” Long before Facebook —after all in 1995 Mark Zuckerberg was still in elementary school!— lapsed friendships were being restored in cyberspace.
One of those unexpected messages came from Spot’s victim Tony Ramirez, and we enjoyed a (for me, at least) enlightening correspondence about medicinal plants. I’d been trying to fight off a mild but annoying case of eczema on an elbow for over a year, and Tony taught me which yerbas to take. They cleared up the eczema quickly.
The two of us exchanged memories of childhood in our old neighborhood a block from Lamar Jr. High, before he asked, “Remember your dog Spot?”
Sure, I did, and we recalled how Spot bit him on the face before disappearing from the neighborhood forever.
Tony wrote in the next message, “There’s something you don’t know about that.”
It turned out that Tony and a cousin were playing in the back yard at his house down the street one afternoon when Spot wandered over, as was his habit. The two boys were playing and wrestling with Spot — and don’t forget the ticks! — in the grass. It remains unclear which one of the boys had the inspiration to experiment with the dog’s modulus of elasticity. It doesn’t matter now which one of them was the scientist. They were both working in that lab.
Tony grabbed Spot by the shoulders, and his cousin held the blind end. Tony pulled from the front, and his research assistant from the hips.
They were achieving impressive levels of dog elongation when Spot decided that they’d exceeded the terms of his Consent Form. In the blink of an eye, Spot flipped his role from passive object of study to active agent and bit Tony on his face.
The rules of the game in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo allowed for the extensive practice corruption known by the figurative name la mordida. But the consequences of the business and political mordida were a lot less severe than they were for Spot’s literal bite.
As I read his story in the email message, I didn’t blame Tony for whatever dog abuse he’d been involved in 40 years before. The pain he and Spot suffered was probably greater on Tony’s end than Spot’s, and anyway, the bicycle had effectively alienated my affections. Tony had been living with a guilty conscience all those years, and I was happy to absolve him on the basis of his confession and contrition.
In the 60 years since those days with Spot, I’ve loved all five and mourned the passing of four subsequent dogs, Sally, Lucy, Sophie, Lady, and now Coco. Each of them was a much better representative of the canine species than Spot was. The fact that they all have been female may account for their excellence. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I’ve done a lot better with “man’s best” than “boy’s best” friend.
No Cocker Spaniels for me after Spot. A vet told me in a party conversation that members of the breed were notorious biters, and Spot fit the stereotype.
I’m still waiting to find out whether Spot went to live “on a ranch” as my parents’ convenient story went or whether he was dispatched to the Great Kennel in the Sky.
After all these years, omniscient as it supposedly is, even The Internet isn’t going to be able to clear that up for me.