Loner, the Dog

Sometimes I think I’m too hard on dogs. Like, I always complain about how obedient they are, and how complacent and all. But, that’s not even really it. I mean, I can see how having a loyal friend can be a nice thing. The problem is just that dogs are dumb friends. Like, they don’t care whether their master is some good-hearted teacher at some alternative school who spends half his income on organic pet food, or whether it’s a fascist bully. They are obedient and complacent nonetheless. Dogs make good Nazis. And with all due respect to all the people who love dogs out there, that’s the undeniable truth. And who, seriously, would wanna sternly defend any creature that’d make a good Nazi? (I suppose people could make an argument that cute little dogs don’t really have Nazi potential, since they are … well, cute and little. Then again, we aren’t talking about funny-looking little creatures here, we are talking about dogs.) Anyway, I said that, despite all, I think I’m sometimes too hard on dogs, and maybe too biased in my adoration of the anarchic cat spirit. And what makes me think this is that, after all, there are still wild (and antifascist) dogs out there. Dingos, of course. African prairie dogs. But also, less exotic, yet equally virtuous, the common stray dog. Who, unfortunately – like everything else wild (and antifascist) - has been brought to the brink of distinction by a society requiring dog collars and ownership papers. Anyway, I’m babbling. I’m here to tell a story.

When I was little, we lived on the outskirts of town. Well, not entirely. Like, more where the outskirts began. If you want, we were kinda between the centre and the outskirts. If this makes any sense. In any case, it wasn’t a rich area. It wasn’t desperately poor either, but poor enough. Not ghetto poor, though. Most people in the neighborhood had work. Shitty work, but work nonetheless. Besides, it was a small town. Small towns don’t have ghettos. Not real ones at least. Almost by definition. In contemporary American English you’d probably call our neighborhood white trash. Poor white Southerners working on the railway lines, in small auto repair shops, fried chicken outlets, or as unskilled laborers in construction. There were not many black folks around our neighborhood, but segregation has always defined America, so what did you expect? Especially in a small Southern town in the 1960s?

We had a little two-bedroom house. One room for my parents, one for me, my two brothers, and my baby sister. The house was not really makeshift, but it wasn’t far from it. In any case, like all the other houses on our street (about ten) it was run down. Electrocution was a constant threat, and even though dad worked on the roof almost every week, we needed to set up buckets in the bedrooms every time it rained. There were no houses on the opposite side of the street. There was just a huge empty field. The property belonged to someone we had never met. Someone who apparently lived in the North, was rich, had many such properties in the South, and didn’t care much about what happened to them. People said the field had once been used for dog races, but that had been a long time ago. An 8-ft. high wooden fence went (almost) all around it now, and looking out our kitchen window meant staring at old rotten wooden planks plastered with posters for gospel shows, high school football games, and used car sales, next to the obligatory (and numerous) Private Property and No Trespassing signs. Once you got closer you could also make out the pocketknife carvings: hearts around two capital letters, like: ‘A&R’, or menacing messages, like: ‘Fuck Scott!’

Of course we kids had gotten many planks loose over the years, and all we needed to do in order to get onto the field was to lift one of them up and sneak in. And, as pathetic as it may sound, it was our childhood’s dream world. A football field sized playground out of the sight of any adult, protected on three sides by the 8-ft. high fence, and on one by a little river and its banks. The grass usually came up to our hips, and everywhere the coolest old metal parts could be found. This was where, for years, we went to hunt snakes, collect trash, pretend to be Huckleberry Finn, play hide-and-seek, or stage gang fights. It was heaven. Or, at least, our escape. In any case, it was our territory. Well, not entirely. We had to share. With a pack of dogs.

The dogs were just there. They didn’t belong to anyone. When we asked the adults about them, they usually called them bastards. No one particularly liked them. I saw people in cars try to run them over on purpose. Not to even mention the rocks that little kids threw at them (“for fun”). Then again, no one minded them too much either. They didn’t really do anyone harm, other than throwing over the garbage bins at night scavenging food. But our street was littered anyway.

The pack pretty much lived on the empty property behind the wooden fence. There were about eight dogs at any given time. There was some coming and going: sometimes some from the pack would disappear for a few days, then come back; sometimes others would join the pack for a few days, then leave again. Then, of course, there were deaths (or at least dogs suddenly missing and not returning), and births (observing the bastard puppies at play remains one of my most joyful and heartwarming childhood memories – unfortunately, not many of them survived in the small town wasteland). At the core of the pack, however, remained a group of five dogs that shared the field with us for years and that we had all given names: Flint, a big black dog who must have had some Labrador in him, undisputedly the leader of the pack; Lucy, a fairly big white female with scrubby fur and black spots (she usually had the most adorable puppies); Foxy, a smaller female who looked like, well, a fox to us; Huck, a scruffy lean dog on the shorter side, but tough, with half-long grey-white fur; and Loner, small, brown, short hair, always quiet, always hanging back, always the last one to get food, always getting out of the way when fights erupted.

I liked Loner. One of those things you can’t explain. I was always drawn to this dog who to most looked just pitiful. I often wondered whether this was the reason I had adopted him as my favorite dog of the pack. But I don’t think it was pity. Or, that wasn’t all of it. Yes, maybe I did feel sorry for Loner in a way ‘cause he was always last in the pack, but at the same time I never saw him as being weak. To me, he wasn’t last ‘cause he was weak, he was last ‘cause he was wise. In any case, while all the other boys admired Flint’s power and strength or Huck’s cleverness and wit, I was alone in taking to the quiet Loner. However, i liked that part. It allowed me to create an exclusive, special relationship with ‘my’ dog. The other boys got along well enough with the other dogs. They fed them and played with them, and they all seemed to have fun. But there were no bonds. Loner and me, though: we had a bond.

I admit that I sometimes snuck food into the field just for him. I’d give it to him when the other dogs were far and his meal wasn’t threatened. But to this day I refuse to believe that Loner and I created a bond solely based on petty hand-outs of left-over chicken. Him and I had something in common. We shared a secret. I know.

He’d greet me every time I entered the field. From afar, but he did. He noticed every time I left too. Again, from afar, but still. Whenever I strolled away from my friends, even if it was just for a minute, he popped up, seemingly out of nowhere. When I was down by the river where the snakes were, he brushed through the scrub before I could. He was looking out for me.

This went on for a few years. Sometimes Loner would disappear for a day or two, but he always came back. Like Flint, Lucy, Foxy, and Huck, he had made the field his home.

Then there was July, the 15th, 1965. I was fourteen then. I had started to sneak out of the house at night a few months earlier. On this hot Thursday night a few friends and I went to the Brawl. The Brawl was a black bar and dance joint. People had built it in the yard of an old sugar mill that lay on what in our town was indeed called ‘the wrong side of the tracks’. Of course, we kids weren’t supposed to be over there. But we loved it. It was exciting and it was fun. So much fun! The music was great, the dancing unbelievable, and the people (the ‘negroes’ to the enlightened ones of us at the time) incredibly nice. That particular night, my friends left the Brawl at around eleven. We usually always went home together, and I had never stayed by myself, but there was this beautiful black woman (a prostitute, but what did I know at the time) who, to the amusement of the adults, taught me how to dance, patted my hair, and called me “honey”, and I didn’t wanna leave. By midnight, however, my entertainment value had worn off, and I assume the beautiful woman had to make some money, and so I was sent home with a big kiss.

I still felt like in a dream when I made my way around the shacks of the ‘colored neighborhood’, huffed up the hill to the rail tracks, and ran down into white man’s land on the other side. And maybe because of the dream-like state I was in, I wasn’t very attentive – and almost ran into two big shadows swaggering down McAllister Road, the one that would lead me back to Willis Road, from where it was only five minutes to get home.

“Whoa, boy, you almost ran us over!” one of the shadows lulled.

“Ya, boy, you almost ran us over!” the other shadow added, grabbing my shoulder with what seemed like an enormously strong and fat hand.

The dream started to fade, I looked up, and I began to understand. I had run into two of the factory workers who come into town for a few months a year from their dying farms in Mississippi so they could make some cash for their families. How much they brought home I never figured out. They always seemed to waste it all on booze. Even the likes of my dad told us kids to stay away from the season workers. They were ‘bad people’ we were told, ‘unmannered and violent’ (and this was something to be said by the likes of my dad). I’d have to say that the two fellows I almost “ran over” did live up to their reputation. They were very drunk. I just hoped they were drunk enough not to piece together what was going on. Unfortunately, they weren’t. I got scared.

“Hey, Ed,” the first shadow spoke again, “that kid came running down the hill. From the railroad tracks. What the hell did you do up there, son?”

“I…I…,” had no idea what to say.

“He was over there looking for that nigger bunch,” the fat guy with the hand on my shoulder answered for me, squeezing my already hurting shoulder even tighter.

“Goddamn,” his friend said, bending down now and blowing his nauseating liquor breath right in my face, “he even smells like that nigger bunch. What on earth did you go over there for, boy?” He grabbed my ear and twisted it hard. I yelled.

“I…I…,” tried again, but still didn’t manage to say anything intelligible.

“Damn, we gotta teach you little hoodlum a lesson, nigger-lover!” the fat guy said again, finally letting go of my shoulder, but only to grab my other ear. I yelled again. By now I was really scared. If even my dad called these fellows violent, what would they do to me?

Then, just when I had closed my eyes expecting a first punch, I heard a bark. Close by. It sounded vicious. The two drunk bigots seemed startled for a second, then they yelled in pain. I could hardly see the dog. It was not big, but fast and ferocious. Both bigots held one of their hands, cursing, trying to kick the dog. But it was too fast, bit them hard in the ankles, and the next thing I knew was seeing both the fellows on the ground, unable to move, still cursing. The dog stood over them growling. It took me a second to gather my thoughts, and then I ran … and ran, and ran, till I jumped the fence to our shitty house, climbed in through the kitchen window, and made it to bed without being noticed.

No one ever found out what had happened that night. It took four more months for my parents to discover one of my nightly excursions. The punishment was swift, and future safety measures made visits to where the fun was more difficult. I still managed to make it to the Brawl a few times, however (mainly thanks to my supportive and loyal siblings – god bless them), before moving to Atlanta when I turned 16, never to go back.

Even my friends, I never told them. They didn’t need to know. This was between Loner and me, and none of anyone else’s business. As it had always been.

Once I had made up my mind that on the day of my 16th birthday I would leave my family and hometown, I wrestled with the thought of taking Loner with me. On the one had, I felt that we belonged together. On the other, Loner was a wild dog, and he belonged to the wasteland. In the end, I didn’t have to make that decision. Three months before my birthday, bulldozers moved into the property beyond the 8-ft. high wooden fence and cleared it out in two days. Some shopping centre (or something) was supposed to be built. When my friends and I wanted to find out what was going on and check on the dogs, we weren’t allowed to enter. Three days later the rotten 8-ft. high wooden planks were replaced by a new, equally high, mash-wire fence. The Private Property and No Trespassing signs were still there (only newer and bigger), but the posters for the gospel shows, high school football games and used car sales were gone and replaced by signs saying Construction Site and No Advertising.

We never found out what happened to the dogs. They were never seen around the neighborhood again. I kept calling my friends from Atlanta for over a year to find out if any of them, particularly Loner, had been seen. Nothing.

The workers might have shot them, they might have gotten away and found a new home, who knows? It’s only the story of five dogs, anyway. What’s more mind-boggling is that millions of dogs went like this. Chased away, captured, poisoned. In the name of hygiene, safety, control. Man’s conquest of the wild. Hallelujah.

Which now leaves us with pet dogs. And the dog collars, and the papers; and the tattooed ears, and the pet shop chains, and the little dog cutie contests, etc. And this is what has made me so bitter and harsh in my assessment of dogs’ characters ever since I left my hometown, and especially since I later became a so-called ‘political activist’. But I know it’s not right. It’s probably not the dogs’ fault. Maybe they are just less egotistical than cats and hence more easily conned into loyalty, even where loyalty is an evil thing. In any case, it probably goes too far to say that they’d all make good Nazis.

Loner, for example, wouldn’t have. Loner was a good and righteous dog.