by Dennis Vannatta
I suppose the time has passed when a man could write without irony about his dog. So be it. This was still America last time I looked. No law says anybody has to read this. But I’m going to write an essay about my dog. Not that he was an extraordinary dog, except extraordinarily loyal. And I can’t say he was an especially beloved dog except by certain members of the Vannatta family. In fact, there were many people who would have told you they were not sorry to see the last of him. I know that for a fact because they told me so often enough in language not fit to be quoted here. I also have to admit that if my dog had performed his great deeds in these litigious times, my father would no doubt have been sued right down to his jockstrap. (My father was one Vannatta to whom my dog was not beloved.) But all this is beside the point. I started thinking about my dog recently, and I miss him, so I’m going to write an essay about him. Here it is.
I don’t know why I named him Skeet. It’s not an auspicious name for a dog, the only “skeet” I’m aware of being the kind you shoot, something you’d rather not have associated with a dog beloved of you and one other person. I’m not sure I even knew what skeet shooting was when I named him that, at around age twelve. I’m not even sure, when I named him, he was beloved of me or anyone else. The truth is, I didn’t want him.
My sister Kay, seven years older than I, eloped with a fellow named Steve, who was stationed at nearby Whiteman Air Force Base. She’d just graduated from high school, and when he was discharged from the service a few months later, he took her back to his home in Calumet City, Illinois. They lived in a converted garage beside his parents’ house. In the back yard was a pen where Steve’s father kept hunting dogs.
My father loved to travel, and we made that drive from our home in Sedalia, Missouri, to Calumet City two or three times a year. As we were preparing to leave after a visit one winter, Steve brought out a cardboard box and said, “My dad wanted to give this to Dennis.” Inside was a scrawny, shivering, ugly little beagle puppy. (In one of the miraculous transformations that sometimes happens to ugly ducklings and fashion models, Skeet grew into The Most Beautiful Beagle That Ever Lived. Wait. I recall saying earlier that there was a nothing extraordinary about my dog, but I forgot one thing: he was extraordinarily beautiful. No other beagle in history came close. Don’t bother arguing the point; you’ll just make a fool of yourself.)
I don’t imagine my parents were elated to have a non-housebroken dog handed to them at the outset of an eight-hour drive. I wasn’t too thrilled about it, either. My only experience with dogs was the one Kay had when I was four or five, Inky the cocker spaniel. All I remembered of Inky was that he bit me once, and that he died some violent death (the details never shared with me), for which my sister cried. I really didn’t see much point in dogs.
But the miserable little beagle had been given to me, a gesture of kindness, and my parents were too polite to turn it down. So, into the back seat of the car went cardboard box, beagle, and me.
At every stop on the drive home, I’d lift Skeet out of the box, put him on a leash, and walk him around the parking lot so he could “do his business,” as my parents put it. Then he’d go back in the box where he’d sit shivering and gazing at me, and, a little bemused, I’d gaze back.
Aha, you say. On that long drive home you bonded, and the rest is boy-dog history. No. What was I going to do with a dog? Was he going to be my responsibility? Jesus, I was way way too young for responsibility. More important, did I have room in my heart for a dog, filled to overflowing as it was with love of self? It didn’t seem possible.
No, it happened later, although not much later, just long enough for Skeet to learn that the brown stuffed chair in the corner of the living room was my chair, the one I almost always sat in, so that when I left to pick up something in the grocery store, Skeet (my parents told me) sat gazing up at my empty chair and then sent up the most mournful howl ever heard.
(I’ll pause here for dog lovers to wipe their eyes.)
Being filled with self-admiration as I was, I could certainly understand how Skeet could love me. What I had not been prepared for was that mysterious process that some poor devils never get to experience: that is, love begets love. Yes, I was a goner. I loved Skeet.
He slept on the foot of my bed. He lay at my feet (often on my feet) when I sat in the brown chair. On the rare occasions when I sat on the sofa, he’d perch on the sofa-back right by my head. When I came home for school, he’d be delirious with joy, leaping and whining, trying to get up to my face so that he could kiss me a thousand times. Oh, weren’t we the most passionate of lovers!
That is, when he wasn’t trying to escape.
I don’t want to give the impression that Skeet was some obsequious little toady with eyes only for me. He was his own man—er, dog—with one eye perpetually on the door. Leave it open just a hair too wide and he’d be out in a black brown and white blur. Among Skeet’s many extraordinary qualities was the fact that he was the quickest, fastest dog in history. Usain Bolt could not have caught him once he got out the door. Usain Bolt wouldn’t even have tried. He would have taken one look at Skeet disappearing over the rim of the earth and said, “Forget dat, mon,” and gone back to his pina colada.
You couldn’t possibly run Skeet down, so your only hope of catching him was to sneak up on him while he was sniffing around some bush or marking his territory. But that didn’t happen often, either, because Skeet was also—guess what?—extraordinarily intelligent. He was generally on to your games before you were. After we did manage to ambush him a couple of times, he put that kibosh on those endeavors by, as soon as he got out the door, instead of sniffing around neighbors’ bushes, sprinting at warp speed far out of sight.
He’d be gone two or three days sometimes. I’d be prostrate with worry imagining the worst, certain I’d never see him again. But eventually he’d come back, hungry, thirsty, looking bedraggled but also looking quite satisfied with himself. If you think a dog can’t look satisfied with himself, you don’t know zilch about dogs, my friend.
We learned to be very careful when opening the front door, but that left a bigger problem: trying to keep Skeet in the back yard where he spent his days while I was at school and my parents at work. The back yard was fenced in, but that fence was a mere technicality to Skeet. Any hole bigger than a cumquat Skeet could get through.
My dad took it as a personal challenge to keep Skeet imprisoned in the back yard, not because he had any great fondness for him—(I recall him hurling his favorite Ronson lighter at him during one escape attempt; Skeet just looked back and laughed)—but because he didn’t want to have to put up with a son who’d be on suicide watch until his dog was home again. His first attempt involved patching all the beagle-pup-sized holes in the fence. Skeet merely squeezed his way under the bottom strand. My dad countered this by fashioning wooden stakes with which he pinned the bottom strand to the ground. Skeet dug under it. The next attempt was the most involved. My dad bought a roll of chicken wire, cut it into long strips about a foot wide. These he wired to the bottom strand of the fence, then pinned the other edge to the ground with wooden stakes, meaning Skeet would have had to tunnel at least a foot to get under the chicken wire.
I vividly remember standing on the back porch watching my dad installing his dog-proof chicken wire, working down on his knees with Skeet right beside him, an interested observer. My dad was talking to him the whole time, occasionally gesturing. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but no doubt it was variations on, There. See if you can get past this, you mangy little bastard.
The next time we looked out the back window, there was Skeet climbing over the fence. I kid you not.
Eventually, though, my dad won. A fence not being the answer, he strung a heavy wire from the rear of the house across the back yard to the garage by the back alley. He attached a long chain to a ring on the wire, attached the other end of the chain to Skeet’s collar. Skeet could still roam over most of the back yard but, chained to the wire, couldn’t quite reach the fence, much less go over it or under it. We had him.
I hope Skeet’s many escape attempts haven’t left the impression that he was unhappy living with us. Far from it. He loved being part of the Vannatta household. But he was an individualist and took his pleasures wherever he found them, and sometimes we Vannattas paid the price. I have to say that meals, for instance, were more pleasant pre-Skeet. It’s disconcerting to have a dog, even a beloved dog, stare with maniacal fixity at you the entirety of your meal, every bite not shared with him a tragedy and a betrayal. The way he stood tensed like a steel spring, you never were certain he wasn’t going to leap straight up and snatch the food off your fork.
Which brings us to one of the great Skeet Capers. The ground floor of our house comprised a foyer, living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, arranged in a square around an enclosed stairway to the second floor. There were connecting hallways and doors, but customarily all doors were left open. The great meal of the week was Sunday dinner (served at noon), almost always a roast beef with mashed potatoes, gravy, etc. The roast would be large enough that half would be left over, enough for another meal. On this Sunday we had finished eating. My mother was clearing the dishes with only the brick-sized chunk of beef remaining on a platter in the center of the table. Suddenly, up onto the tabled leaped Skeet, then off again with the roast beef clenched in his jaws. My mother screamed, and soon we were all of us off in pursuit, round and round the house through kitchen down hallway past bedroom through foyer and living room and into dining room again, then around once more. Finally, one of us had the presence of mind to close a door. Skeet was trapped. But the beef was gone, inside him, obviously, although it didn’t seem possible. It was as big as he was! Like I said, an extraordinary dog.
The basement of that house was the site of another Skeet feat of surpassing wonder. In one corner of the musty old basement was the furnace room. The ancient coal furnace itself had been converted for natural gas. Beyond it was a smaller room that had held coal. It was dark and damp—scary, I thought, and for good reason because inhabiting the coal room were big black rats. My father would put out rat traps and occasionally catch one. We always kept the doors to the furnace room and coal room closed, but one day they were left ajar. (No doubt I was the guilty party.) Skeet raced into the coal room. A battle royal ensued, accompanied by snarls, howls, and blood-curdling squeals. I just knew Skeet (still a pup then) was being eviscerated. Finally, there was silence. Then Skeet emerged, dragging a black rat half again his size.
Did I mention that Skeet was the bravest and most fearsome fighter of all beagles? Well, now I have.
We moved to a new house that had no fences. My father strung the heavy wire from the corner of the detached garage to a tree on the far side of the back yard. Skeet, fully grown by then, would charge from one end of the wire to the other, not slowing down until, with no fence to impede him, the chain yanked him to a halt with enough force to bring him flying upward in a backward one-and-half. You’d think it’d break the stupid dog’s neck, but for all we could tell, it didn’t hurt him a bit. What it hurt was his collar. After a few dozen of those mighty yanks, the collar would break, and Skeet would be free to roam once more for a day or three. We’d buy sturdier and yet sturdier collars; none could stand up to the punishment Skeet doled out. Once again, my father came up with the solution: a choker collar. It didn’t stop Skeet from charging down the wire until brought to a flying halt by the chain, but at least the collar never broke. (Once the wire did, though, and Skeet was gone on his days-long adventure trailing fifteen feet of chain.)
Much as I credit Skeet’s wiliness, I doubt he was plotting his escape via broken collars. No, an occasional escape was just a bit of lagniappe for him. Howling, hair standing up on his back, baring his teeth, he had another target in mind: that is, anyone in the world not named Vannatta. His answer for threats real and imagined was attack first and let God sort it out. And he didn’t waste time with such niceties as warning growls or threatening barks. With Skeet it was attack, bite, bite again.
He was the terror of friends, neighbors, innocent passersby, and the mailman. I once looked out the window to see the mailman in a frantic pirouette, desperately trying to keep his mailbag between him and Skeet, who charged around him howling liked Comanches around a wagon train. Friends weren’t safe just because they happened to be with me. Most at one time or another sported bite marks for being careless enough to forget what lurked waiting for them in the backyard. Decades later, at a class reunion and the subject of Skeet comes up, it’s never met with that wry laugh we old men bestow upon indignities from the past. No, their faces will harden; dark mutterings will issue forth; in their eyes will be fear.
Skeet gave his family credit for some sense, though. We wouldn’t let a dangerous person inside the house, would we? Operating under that assumption, once a person got past our front door, Skeet lost interest in him. Rest assured, though, they didn’t get past that front door without a Vannatta letting them in—generally two Vannattas, one to greet the guest and the other to hold Skeet back until he was sure the intruder meant no harm.
That front door came in for a lot of abuse. From the bottom almost to the little window two-thirds of the way up, it was scarred by hundreds of scratches, result of Skeet, every time he heard a knock or the doorbell ring, flying hell bent for leather up the hallway, howling as only an enraged beagle can howl, then hurling himself at the door in a furious attempt to claw his way through it and get at the disturber of the Vannatta peace.
Then one day IT happened. Summer. We had no air-conditioning back then. We’d leave the big oak front door open and latch the screen door. Or it was supposed to be latched. On that day, the doorbell rang. Skeet sprang up and tore for the door. I ran after him, reached the hallway in time to see Skeet hit the screen door like a howitzer shell. The door flew open, smacking some woman standing on the tiny concrete landing outside. The woman flew backward off the landing onto one of the two large round bushes that flanked the front steps. Her legs flew straight up as she did a perfect backward roll over the bush and onto the ground. A movie stuntwoman couldn’t have done better. Indeed, the whole incident looked like nothing so much as a slapstick scene in a Harold Lloyd comedy.
We never heard from the woman again—or, thankfully her lawyer. I’m sure my parents were relieved. I thought it was hilarious. Still do.
God, I loved that dog.
The more things change, the more they remain the same, the French say, but they live in a different world than I do. In the world I inhabit, things change, full stop.
For the better part of ten years, Skeet had slept on my bed and lived in my heart. Throughout those typically troubled teenage years and years of clueless young manhood, Skeet and his utter devotion was the one unchangeable.
That ended in June, 1969, when I was drafted into Uncle Sam’s Legions. I came home on leave three times over the next two years. Skeet was always happy to see me and I was always happy to see him, but things weren’t the same between us. My fault, I suppose. I’d abandoned him, after all, and, no longer quite so troubled or clueless, a reasonably mature adult, in fact, I no longer needed his love as I once had.
Skeet didn’t need me so much, either, and he didn’t beat around the bush letting me know. My first night home I expected to see Skeet at the foot of my bed as always. He wasn’t there. I found him on the foot of my mother’s bed. Just a tad affronted, I picked him up and brought him back to my bed. He stayed there that night, but the next night he was back on my mother’s bed. I left him there. She hadn’t abandoned him, after all. So, Skeet was her dog now.
Truthfully, I wasn’t much bothered by it. I wasn’t going to be home long. How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree? That fall, I went off to grad school, and for the rest of Skeet’s life, and my mother’s life, I was only an occasional visitor to the old homestead.
When I wasn’t there, I wasn’t pining away for Skeet, either, I must confess. My thoughts were occupied first of all by that tall blond I’d met. Then came my studies. I did worry about my mother living alone (my father having died when I was nineteen), so I was glad she had Skeet for companionship. I knew it wouldn’t be for long, though.
Gray hairs among the black and brown, he’d already been an aging dog by the time I got drafted. When I returned, he was old, walked haltingly, still barked but never charged down the wire in the back yard howling in rage. Then his belly began to swell at the same time that his appetite began to wane. The vet gave us the bad news: stomach cancer.
I was away at the university when I got the call from my mother: Skeet had gone to the vet for an overnight stay so that more tests could be done, but had suddenly died. She was distraught, certain that the vet had put him to sleep without her permission. Well, it was probably for the best, I said.
The next time I was home, we went out to the pet cemetery where my mother had had Skeet buried. We stood over his little marker. My mother wept. I don’t remember what I did. Probably checked my watch.
Sometimes you shoot Old Yeller. Sometimes you just turn your back and walk away.