No, I wasn’t the bumbler in the family. Even though Mother said I was – I wasn’t. We all knew, actually, who was the bumbler in our family. On our farm, deep in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains, Daddy bumbled everything. One of his biggest bumbles was when he brought home mean old Willie.
Willie was a black Labrador Retriever who lived in Pittsburgh with one of the partners from Daddy’s company. One day, Willie’s owner died of old age and, as Daddy told us several nights later, left poor Willie without a home or family to love him.
Another partner asked Daddy if he would take old Willie. After all, Daddy said, he knew we lived out in the country, we had a large family to care for Willie, and, most importantly, we too had a black Labrador for Willie to play with.
“The more the merrier,” Daddy said.
Mother, though, was not so sure; she was the one who would have to handle the two Labs every day. Our dog, George, was more than enough, she said.
We kids begged Mother to let us take him; we said we would care for Willie and he would become George’s older brother.
“I’ll think about it,” Mother said.
That night in Holly’s bedroom, Holly, Charley, Allison and I went over all the reasons he would be so great.
George had been a part of our family since he was a puppy, and when we moved to the farm, he loved being loose in the fields – though, we all knew, Mother wasn’t sure if the fields he ran around in were fields we actually owned. Willie could help George stay closer to home, near the house and barn.
On the other hand, Mother hated George in the house. He never came inside unless Mother went to Somerset to take an art class or play bridge. If Holly babysat us, she would sneak George into her bedroom almost as soon as Mother drove up the lane to the highway. George was a key member of our club and Holly’s favorite. Hours later, when Mother returned, headlights flashing down the lane, George would be pushed out the door before Mother parked the station wagon.
Allison said, “Willie could be part of our club too.”
‘And,” Holly said, “George and Willie could sleep together at night.”
George slept outside against the back door, even though his doghouse was on the driveway side of our house. We knew the weather would have to be horrible before Mother would let him in the mudroom below the kitchen. Chickens would freeze and Mother would say, “Oh, George, can handle it.” A lake would form over our pond due to the pounding rain and Mother would say, “Oh, it’s not so bad out there. George will go to his doghouse, don’t worry.” If the heavens lit up with flashes of lightning and thunder battered the night sky, we would spot George racing across the fields. Mother would say, “See, George is searching for his house now.”
I said to Holly, “ Willie, I bet, could help George find his doghouse too.”
Charley said, “George doesn’t want to be in his doghouse, he wants to be with us.”
Even when we drove off to Somerset to go to the country club or the library or to attend Sunday school, George often followed us. Mother or Daddy would have to stop the car and yell at him to go home, to go back to the house and sometimes, even, he would listen. Other times, he would just sit there and pant with his tongue hanging out. Charley or Holly would have to take him back to the house.
“With Willie,” Charley said, “George would have another dog to play with until we came home.”
This all made sense to me. While I was getting ready for bed that night, I thought of other reasons we should keep Willie too. Just like George, Willie could run along side us when we rode our bikes, or, like George, Willie could race after Charley’s home runs, showing me exactly where in the corn field the ball had landed. George hated giving up the ball, and, when he did, it would be soaked with his saliva. Willie could teach George how to “point” because, as Daddy said, Willie was a trained retriever. In return, George could teach Willie how to dig for ground hogs or chase after raccoons. With George and Willie together, maybe even, they could catch a badger or, better yet, a bear.
When Mother came back to my room to kiss me good night, I told her all of my reasons and pleaded with her to let Willie live with us. I know Allison did too.
“Maybe on a trial basis,” she said, “if only to protect you when you catch your bear.”
“You’ll see,” I said, “Willie will be a great dog.”
When Daddy brought Willie home from Pittsburgh the next night, we were thrilled. George was too. He jumped around on the back patio and wanted to wrestle with Willie right away. I could see George and Willie would be best friends forever and ever. Mother just stared at him. He was a big black dog and heavyset, like a large black barrel.
“He looks none-too-friendly,” she said to Daddy.
“What could I do,” Daddy said, “They were going to put him asleep.” Instead, he put Willie in our mudroom.
After dinner, we all wanted to play with Willie, but Daddy said we should wait. Willie was old and tired from the hour-and-a-half drive and not used to kids and other dogs.
The next morning Daddy brought Willie out of the mudroom before he left for work. Daddy told Holly or Charley to put a leash on him and Allison and I could show Willie around our farm.
Allison and I walked Willie down to the barn, over to the pond, and into the woods behind our house, but he wasn’t interested in anything. Instead Willie led us back to our house and the back door. We decided Willie must want to take a nap or stay in the mudroom until Daddy came home, but Mother said Willie would get used to being outside.
“Labrador Retrievers have no business being inside. Labs are not indoor dogs,” Mother said.
Allison and I were not so sure Willie understood. We sat at the picnic table and Willie just stared at the house.
When Daddy came home that evening, Willie perked up and went to the car to greet him. Later Daddy took him on a long walk. Daddy said they went down to the barn where he introduced Willie to our hired hand and the cows. Willie was happy to be with Daddy and George was happy too, though he kept his distance as Willie didn’t like him rubbing against him. George ran ahead and ran back, barking and exploring, but Willie stayed at Daddy’s side.
That night he howled in the light under the security pole on the driveway.
Mother said, “That’s just Willie saying good night to you and Allison and all of his new friends in the barn.”
In the days that followed we discovered Willie hated chasing baseballs, running after us on our bikes, digging up ground hogs, or hunting wild beasts with me in our woods. He simply waited for Daddy to come home from work.
When it rained, Willie would bark at the back door and scratch at the screening until Mother was sure he would tear the door to pieces. In the daytime, Mother would have Charley throw milk bones into Willie’s doghouse so he would learn to go inside his home, but at night Daddy would give in and let Willie and George sleep in the mudroom.
“Don’t use our good towels to dry them.” Mother would yell to us kids as we went to make a bed for the dogs in the mudroom, but soon the whole house smelled of wet dogs. Mother would be furious and say the dogs should stink up their own houses outside.
Willie liked being with Daddy. Often on the weekends Willie would drive with Daddy to Somerset to pick up big sacks of dog food, or to get supplies for the farm. If Daddy was home, Allison and I would find Willie sleeping on the front patio next to Daddy on the lounge chair. Willie would raise his head, look at us, and then, go back to sleep.
I said to Mother, “Willie only wants to be with Daddy. George is always with Charley and Holly, but Willie won’t play with Allison and me.”
Mother said we should give Willie time. Later, during the week when we called Willie or pulled him on his leash to come with us, he snapped at us and wanted to be left alone.
At the dinner table we complained to Daddy, but he told us Willie was a different kind of dog. He said once Willie was with him driving back from Somerset when the car suddenly had a flat tire. He was changing the tire when out of the woods came a huge Grizzly Bear about sixteen feet tall. The Grizzly was hungry and wanted Daddy for his dinner. Well, Daddy told us, Willie, jumped on him and forced that old Grizzly to run back into the woods.
“How did you get home?” I asked.
“Well, you never saw anyone change a tire quicker in your life.” Daddy said with a wink.
Mother rolled her eyes and told Daddy to stop telling us stories.
Daddy said, Willie was here to protect us. He couldn’t play with us as much as George because he had to keep an eye out for Grizzlies and other bears.
I loved this story and wanted Daddy to tell it to us again and again: the story of how Willie saved Daddy and fought off a bear. Unlike George who always wanted to play, Willie could protect us. Willie was our guard dog.
Mother said we should let Willie alone.
It wasn’t long before we realized Willie only wanted to protect us from afar and soon Allison and I had little to do with him. George had little to do with him too. After enough growls from Willie and a few physical attacks, George left Willie alone.
The only time we had fun with Willie was when he got inside the house.
Every time Allison and I went outside, Willie would run for the door and every so often, before the screen door closed, he would push his way past us. If he made it inside, he would make a beeline for the couch, and we would run after him, shouting, “Hide Willie, Hide!” But he wouldn’t. He only wanted to lie on the couch and mark it up with his muddy paws. Mother, though, would send him scurrying back outside, either with a broom or yanking on his collar, telling Willie to behave, threatening to spank Allison and me for letting him inside.
All day long Willie would lie in the garden next to the patio where he could keep his eye on both the lane and back door. Mother hated that he found a spot in her garden, but she gave him this space. Besides, the garden was all dug up by George with his bones or me with my trucks and plastic soldiers. If the bushes could survive being smashed by Charley’s baseballs, his basketball, or his baseball bat when he pounded it on the ground for no reason, Willie lying in the cool dirt between them would not be a problem.
That was why it was so strange one Saturday afternoon early that summer when Willie did the worst thing ever.
Daddy had gone to take Charley to baseball practice and Holly to her friend’s house. Daddy said Willie couldn’t go with them because it was too hard to watch Willie while Charley played ball. When they went to leave, Willie kept trying to get in the car, so Daddy had Allison and me hold both Willie and George by their collars as they drove up the lane.
Soon George went off to look for groundhogs, and Willie settled in to his guard duties. Allison and I were playing with her Barbies on the back patio. Mother was inside in the kitchen. It was a hot day, but a nice breeze was blowing across the patio.
We had been talking about what Ken and Barbie would wear to the Royal Ball, but I was fidgeting, and Mother, from the kitchen window, told me to go to the bathroom. “Right now,“ she said. I hated taking time, but I jumped up and ran into the house.
Willie rose from his sleeping spot, thinking he would go inside too, but when he realized he was too late to get through the door, he stopped, sat, and looked across the patio. Maybe he saw a rabbit or a weasel or George digging a hole.
Slowly he crossed over to where Allison sat, dressing her Barbie, and, when she reached out to pet him, for no reason, he snarled and bit her. He bit her in the face.
Allison screamed. I was in the bathroom playing with the water at the sink when I heard Mother rush out the door. She was yelling “Bad dog! Bad dog!” I flushed the toilet and ran to the window. Willie was scampering off toward the side of the house. Mother grabbed Allison and was carrying her to the backdoor. Allison was hysterical. I ran to the kitchen as Mother whisked Allison past me and took her into her bathroom. I ran after them. Allison was all bloody.
Mother focused on Allison’s face, trying to wash away the blood with her wash cloth. Soon she laid Allison on her bed, having her press a towel against her cheek as she went out to get Willie. She told me to sit on her bed and watch Allison, but I wanted to go with her. If dogs could be spanked, I bet she was going to spank Willie. Poor Willie!
It wasn’t long before both dogs were tied up at their dog houses, and we were in the station wagon heading for the Somerset Hospital. I sat in the front passenger seat – which I never got to sit in what with Holly, Charley and Allison being older than me. Allison lay on the backseat with a big towel on the side of her face; she cried the entire time as we drove the nine miles to the Emergency Room. I kept asking her what she had done to Willie, but she wouldn’t answer me.
Mother told me to quit pestering Allison with questions.
I asked Mother if she spanked Willie.
“No,” she said, “but I should have.”
Mother told the doctor on Willie. She saw the whole thing. Luckily, she said, Allison turned away just in time. Mother said she was mad at Willie and he was a mean old dog.
I told the doctor he never wanted to play with us either.
The doctor reassured Mother and me, it would be all right. He gave Allison a tetanus shot, but he said her left cheek would require stitches.
Later, Daddy called the veterinarian when we came home. The vet, Daddy told Mother, said we had to watch Willie for the next two weeks to see if he had rabies.
Rabies! Does Willie have rabies? What are rabies? Will rabies make you sick? Is Allison going to die?
“Jonathan!” Mother said as she made dinner. “Stop asking so many questions. We’ll just watch and see. No, Allison’s not going to die.”
Allison had a big white patch on her face just below her eye. Charley and I went back to her bedroom and asked her if we could see her stitches. When she lifted the patch high enough for us to see under, it was horrible: three black threads sticking out of her face, red ointment painted all over her cheek, and a ugly purple bruise.
“What did you do to Willie?” I asked.
“I didn’t do nothing to Willie.” Allison said. “Cross my heart.” She started crying.
I believed her.
Poor Allison. She had to stay in bed the rest of the evening and all that night too.
Looking out the hallway window at Willie in the garden, I wondered what she said to make him so mad. Poor Willie. Everyone was mad at him. I heard Daddy say to Mother, “We can’t put him down until we know if he has rabies.”
I wondered what that meant: put him down, down where? Down in Pittsburgh? Would we give him back to Daddy’s boss?
I thought he was dead.
That night at the dinner table, I asked how would we know if Willie had rabies?
Charley told me to look for white foam coming out of his mouth.
“Don’t you go near Willie,” Mother said.
I wouldn’t go near Willie, but I was certain I could see white foam if he started puking – I was sure of it.
But why didn’t Willie get a tetanus shot, like Allison, and be done with it?
Holly said tetanus shots had nothing to do with rabies. Tetanus shots were to kill the germs from Willie’s fangs.
Why don’t we brush Willie’s fangs with toothpaste or something? That had to be better than tetanus shots. I hated tetanus shots.
Charley said rabies required twenty shots (or more!) for a month (or more!) in your gut and that was much worse (much, much worse, he told me) than tetanus shots.
In your gut! Rabies must be horrible!
Charley said we should watch Allison too to see if she had white foam coming out of her mouth. We might have to lock her in her bedroom if she did. Feed her under the door. Push a hose through the slit for water.
“Allison will be alright,” Daddy said. “In the meanwhile, for the next two weeks, let’s let old Willie alone.”
“Don’t do anything to provoke him,” Daddy said. “He’s lived a good life and needs some peace and quiet.”
Charley said he better not try anything with him. He had his baseball bat and would smack him into a bloody pulp. I said I would carve him into a bloody pulp. I had made a Viking sword with some wood from the barn, and though I could never get it very sharp, I was sure I could stab him with it or, maybe, chop off his head if he came after me.
After dinner I showed everyone exactly how I would do it too.
Mother said, gathering the dishes, “That’s enough, Jonathan. Just let Willie alone.”
The next day, I put my Viking sword in my belt and was ready for old Willie. Still, the sword wasn’t meant for protection; I had made it for combat, such as fighting Indians or Romans, and it was heavy and constantly banged against my leg. It wasn’t long before I grew tired of carrying it. Worse, I forgot about Willie every time I went outside to see if foam was pouring his mouth and dripping all over the bushes. On top of it all, Charley and I got into trouble watching Allison. She hated that we were studying her, waiting for white bubbles, like bubble gum bubbles, to bubble out between her lips and told Mother on us.
Mother told us to stop it.
So, for the good of the family, we had to watch Allison slyly – as if we were not watching her at all – but that was hard to do, and with those ugly stitches covering half of her face, she wasn’t that much fun to stare at anyway.
I realized too that if Allison attacked me full of rabies, I wasn’t sure I would be able to slice her head off.
Charley might have to help.
But she didn’t do anything different and following her around became boring.
Even her stitches were boring, like dried, tiny black worms stuck halfway out of her cheek. We almost forgot they were there.
But everything changed a week later.
I was by myself with my trucks on the driveway gravel. Allison was inside with Mother and no one wanted to play with me.
George was with Charley in the back yard. Willie, who had been sleeping in the garden, got up and went into the yard to see what George and Charley were doing, and after observing George racing into the cornfield after Charley’s homeruns, decided to come back to the house.
I looked up to see Willie walking toward me. I didn’t give it much thought. I hadn’t been playing with him and wasn’t near his spot in the garden. No foam, white or otherwise, was covering his mouth.
I went back to making a dirt road in the loose gravel.
My sword was on the patio where I had dropped it when I went to get my trucks.
Suddenly I could feel Willie’s presence, a big husky black Lab staring at me as I looked up. Just as I did, he growled a deep growl, bared his fangs, and lunged at me.
I screamed and jerked back, but I could feel his teeth ripping into my mouth. The pain was terrible.
I grabbed my face and fell backwards onto the driveway. Willie growled again and was about to lunge at me a second time. I started kicking at him, screaming through the blood.
Suddenly I heard a baseball whiz past us and thump against the house. Charley and George were racing towards us: George barking and Charley yelling, “Willie! Willie, stop! Willie, heal! Willie! Stop!“
Willie turned his head and saw Charley running down the yard, bat in hand, and, in front of Charley: George charging directly at him. Willie jerked away and took off around the side of the house.
Charley stopped at Mother’s station wagon, but George chased Willie past their doghouses and into the front yard.
I heard Mother burst out of the house and run toward me. “What’s going on? What’s happening? Jonathan! Charley!”
“It’s Willie!” Charley yelled, starting after Willie and George. “I’m going to kill him.”
Mother saw the blood gushing from my face. I was screaming and holding my mouth. Blood poured between my fingers, covering the front of my shirt. Allison, running up behind Mother, looked at me in shock.
Mother lifted me into her arms. Allison ran with us to the back door. I could see her black stitches against her cheek as we went inside, her eyes full of tears.
In the kitchen Mother put me down, telling me to hush, to calm down, to be still. She said it would be all right, but I couldn’t stop crying. It hurt too much. Allison was crying too. Somewhere in the front of the house George and Willie were barking and snapping at each other and Charley was yelling, but for me, the world had stopped.
Slowly Mother moved my hands away from my face and tried to see through the blood where Willie had bitten me. My mouth was full of blood. Grabbing a towel on top of the washing machine, she put it against my lip, my chin – my hands holding it against my mouth. She took me to her bathroom. With water running from her sink, she slowly moved the towel away, but the blood was too much to see the wound cleanly, even with a washcloth washing away the blood.
Willie had torn my lower lip. Separating much of it from my jaw.
In minutes we were in Mother’s station wagon heading back to the hospital – Allison this time in the front passenger seat, Charley in the back seat with my head on his lap, Charley pressed the towel against my mouth as we drove to Somerset. I stared up at him, his face flush with anger.
“I should have killed him,” Charley said to me. “I should have killed him,” he said to Mother.
“Hush,” Mother said.
“I should have.” Charley said. “When Willie was sleeping in the garden, I should have bashed his head in.”
I stared at Charley, thinking, I don’t want a tetanus shot. I don’t want rabies in my belly. I hate Willie. Why didn’t Charley bash in his head when he had the chance?
Later, the doctor gave me a tetanus shot and it hurt. My lip required six stitches and they hurt too. The white patch on my face was stupid.
When we came home from the hospital, George was at the backdoor to greet us, but Willie was not in his usual spot in the garden. Mother put me in my bed and with her hands pushed my hair to the side. She touched my cheek and told me that I was a big boy and I would be okay.
That night, when Daddy came home from work, he came to my room and said I was really strong for fighting off Willie and I would get better.
I wanted to ask him why Willie had hurt me, but I couldn’t speak with the stitches and the white patch covering half of my mouth.
Daddy, said, as if answering my question, Willie wouldn’t hurt Allison or me any more.
After Daddy left, Charley, Holly, and Allison came in to inspect my stitches.
Holly said Willie was hiding in the woods, but Daddy got him to come back to the house. He now was locked in the mudroom. Holly said the vet told Daddy we would have to wait another two weeks to see if Willie had rabies. Mother, though, Holly said, didn’t care what the vet said. Willie had scarred two of her children and was not going to bite anyone else anymore.
Mother was really mad at Daddy, Allison said. She said Daddy never should have brought Willie into our family. What was he thinking? She said this whole thing was Daddy’s fault.
Charley said Daddy called the hired hand, and he told Mother the two of them would take care of it. Charley said he saw the pistol the hired hand brought out from his car. He said he loaded it with real bullets while they were talking. Charley said Daddy wouldn’t let him go with them when they went to get Willie. He was mad. He was old enough, he said. He should have been allowed to go with them.
Willie was once a good dog, Holly said, and deserved better.
Charley said, he should have bashed his head in when he had the chance.
I never saw mean old Willie again, but that wasn’t the last of Daddy’s bumbles.
Categories: A Fictionalized Biography, Memoir, My Family Story
Fantastic! Funny and moving and scary, capturing the child view of the world perfectly.
Jonathan…you have developed a very nice child’s voice. This was a gripping and believable story. I enjoyed every minute of it.