September 29, 2008

Tales of Finch and Glory



I had a great dog, mourned to this moment. What a grand dog he was! Ha ha ha ha!

"He was a dog's dog," said Marc Freeman, his former owner. More accurately, Marc and I were co-0wners of Finch, who was a curious, gentle, loving and happy clown, and fearless in battle. He was a beauty too. He weighed 75 pounds, had shepard markings, was the color of a golden retriever, had the thick coat, the voice and paws of a malamute, yellow wolf-eyes, was part yellow lab, and had floppy ears that perked right up at certain sounds and other creatures. He had his likes and dislikes. Like all dogs, he liked food-in-general and chili dogs-in-particular. He destested all cats, skunks, and any unmutilated male dogs with pretensions to territory or power. A fixed male to Finch was hardly a dog at all. He tolerated them, and they followed him around like puppies.

I usually walked him late at night, often after midnight, when traffic was light, and he could romp freely down streets and through yards like they were his own. He wasn't shy. More often than not, if he happened on one of the slow-moving and fearless skunks of the neighborhood or a luckless cat sleeping a mite too comfortably, murder would result. There was nothing I could do about it, except put him on a leash--and I sometimes did--but he had been on a chain all day, and the point of walking him was to give him exercise and some natural dog freedom, guaranteed by the mistakenly discredited "natural law."

Finch was a true democrat, he tolerated all company, and was no threat to children unless they tried to mount him. Marc had bought him from the dog pound when he was about a year old. He had lived his first year in the company of nuns who ran a school for deaf children. They mistakenly let the little kids try to ride him, and Finch was too young for that. He would growl but the children could not hear him. When the nuns finally heard it, they called him "a bad dog," and gave him up for adoption or execution. So he was suspicious of little kids.

I figured he had a right to run loose. He was not a barker, either. He was a yipper. He saved his deep bark for the aforementioned males with pretensions. If such a challenge were met, Finch's eyes lit up with the eagerness seen only in true warriors, and usually the other dog limped home. Like all male dogs with a smidgen of naturalness, he was extraordinarily interested in female dogs; so much so, that when the most-distant scent announced that a lady dog was interested in receiving gentlemen callers, Finch felt duty-bound to pay his respects and run off the other dogs with pretensions. He informed us of his overwhelming devotion to duty by chewing through ropes and busting chains and disappearing for hours or even days. Sooner or later Marc would get a call from the pound and would go down and bail him out.

"Mike, that dog has cost me $500," Marc told me. Finch knew the dog officer so well that when he pulled up and opened his door and whistled, Finch would leap right in, happy for the ride home. He didn't know anything about money.

The progeny of Finch the dog is in and around Central Valley, N.Y., southwest Colorado, California, and Washington State. I'm sorry to say that the skeletons of skunks and a few cats still decaying in the fields are his doing also. But like I said, there was nothing I could do about it. I figured God sent Finch to keep the skunk population down. The lovable but smelly little creatures would merely stop when Finch approached on the bound, and perhaps get off one missed-shot, before he clamped it in his powerful jaws and gave it a few quick chews. After it was dead, he showed little interest, and seemed oblivious to the changed atmosphere. Skunk smell is a fine, invisible mist, and he and I together walked in it briefly after a killing. Once in a convenience store people were holding their noses and moving away from me. I decided at that moment to put a end to the ongoing massacre.

But how? The skunks didn't always get off a shot, yet, even dead, they managed to pollute the air, but it didn't always need to be washed out. There was only one answer: give him a bath every time he killed one. The only thing that Finch hated worse than skunks and cats was a bath. Bathe him for five minutes, and he would howl. He sounded like a dying wolf in Alaska. I had to do it four times. One night, on his fifth skunk of the month, Finch stopped dead in his tracks, seeing a bath. The skunk got him full in the face, and I don't know whether it was the baths or the direct hit that dissuaded him from his murderous ways. But he never went after another. There was nothing I could do to stop him from killing an occassional cat--which always took place out of my sight. I heard them in the final cry of outrage and pain of their death-agony.

I figured God was evening it up about the birds. A couple of cats will decimate a neighborhood of birds, didn't you know? Felines climb into the nests at night and eat the babies or the eggs. If this goes on for awhile, birds leave the neighborhood. Don't believe me? Count the cats and birds in your neighborhood. For some reason, when the birds split, the butterflies do too.

Let me tell you something about cats, and don't get me wrong, because I like most of them as individuals, but am suspicious of them as a class. Cats don't really like humans. They have no real loyalty. They hang around us for the food, the warm digs, and the stroking. They train us to open the refrigerator by rubbing our legs and purring. Sure, people get off on stroking them as much as the cats do, but if you died, they would eat you. If you fell down paralyzed and they went without too many meals, they would eat you alive. They are wild and clever animals.

Dogs are different. Besides being the only creature ever to voluntarily take up with man, dogs are probably the only creatures able to love us. They are the only animals who will die for us. Certainly, security as alarms and first-responders to other predators was the reason we fed and kept them around our camps in the first place, but my dog would never have eaten me. Not without cooking anyway. He wouldn't eat raw meat. He would have starved first. He loved me too much. If you have never felt the love of a dog, well, you've got a lot coming to you. Finch saved me from an attacker in Albuquerque once, and I saved him from an alligator in Florida. The difference is that he was prepared to die for me , but I was not prepared to do the same for him.

Another thing. Finch could sense how I was feeling from a long way off. I used to write in an upstairs bedroom in the front of a house I rented beside Marc's in Central Valley. I write in the late and early morning hours, usually. I noticed that if I had felt something deeply, something that caused me to choke up for example, Finch, tied up a hundred feet away, would yip. It never failed. That dog knew how I felt all the time. He was one wonderful dog, and when nobody else in this world had any love for me, Finch did. He bounced around like a basketball every time I came home, overjoyed. What mean bastard couldn't appreciate that?

I hadn't seen Finch for about five years. I had been living on MacDougal Street in the Village and driving a cab and hadn't seen Marc except for the times he would come by my place. When I decided to quit taxis and start painting, I went to Central Valley to look for work and dropped by Marc's place. Finch was in the backyard tied up. I walked out to say hello and he almost bit me! Hmm, I thought, so that's the game is it? I went into Marc's refrigerator and retrieved a handy piece of cooked steak and gave it to Finch. He gobbled it and accepted me as an old friend. When I learned that he wasn't walked much--Marc is a very busy guy, isn't mean or neglectful, but he didn't have much time for that--I asked if I could walk him.

"Sure Mike, but don't let him off the leash. He won't come back."

I walked him the first time at night, and as soon as we were out of sight of Marc's house, I unsnapped the leash and Finch took off like a rocket to Mars. I followed him until he was too far ahead, then turned left and hollered at him. Seeing that I was going another way, Finch ran back, made the turn and ran in front of me again. Everytime he went too far, I turned and called again. By the time the walk was finished about an hour later, he had accepted my leadership, and went where I went, only in front of me.

One day I asked Marc to give me Finch.

"Mike, I can't give you my dog!" I told him that, well, he wasn't really his dog anymore, because I was the guy who walked and fed him mostly, and I needed a dog. I pointed out that he didn't have a lot of time for Finch. He said he would think about it. The next day he came over and said, "You're right, Mike. He's your dog now." We moved Finch's house into my backyard, and that was how I came to be co-owner. Because Marc loved him too.

The dog loved riding in my van. After Marc gave him to me, I decided to go to Florida to retrieve some things left in a van that had broken down on me somewhere north of Miami. I had left it in a storage place, and the rent was coming due, so it was time for the trip. I planned to work my way out to California again after getting my things. The day arrived and I loaded my van, said goodbye to Marc, and went off to swim in a lake near West Point. I had taken Finch there before, but he had refused to go in the water. He would stand on the bank and bark at me the whole time I was swimming. This time, there were four guys talking and drinking beer on a rock about 10 feet higher than the lake. I was swimming and Finch was barking and barking. Finally I shouted at the guys, "Hey, one of you guys please pick that dog up and throw him in the water!" The bravest one walked over, scooped Finch up (he went RUFF!) and tossed him in. Ha ha. It cracked me up.

Of course, once in, he realized he could swim. He started swimming back to the beach, but I latched onto his collar and steered him out into the lake. Everytime he tried to go back, I tugged him farther toward the middle. Finally he realized he wasn't going to the beach, and stayed alongside me until I had finished. After that, I never had trouble getting Finch into the water.

When the swim was done, I started for Florida. When we passed the turnoff to the house and kept going, his ears perked up. He knew something was going on but didn't know what. My first stop was 100 miles down the road. By then, Finch knew that he was free at last. I walked him all over the United States. He peed in hundreds of truck stops and got to know neighborhoods in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona,, Nevada, California, Seattle, and Colorado. He never killed another skunk or cat that I know about. He never tried to escape. I had a big red beanbag chair that became his bed. When he sat in the passenger seat, I put it between him and the dashboard so a sudden stop would not send him into the windshield. He slept a lot. If I drove too far without stopping, he would yip when it was time to go to the bathroom. In cold or inclimate weather, I always brought him inside the house or apartment I was renting. But it wasn't necessary, because he loved the snow. If it was too bitterly cold, he would yip to come inside. He slept beside me. On cold nights in the van, he was a blessing of free heat, as I suppose I was to him too. He was clean, flea-and tick-free, and eventually he quit complaining when I bathed him.

Finch kept me steady. No matter where I was or what I was doing--working or drinking in a bar usually--I had to go home to walk and feed him. He was a good person to come home to. He loved me unconditionally, and I loved him more than anybody except Joey, Jaime, my grandmother, mother, and Cindy.

We lived together mostly in that van and another one for eight years. Now and then when I had the money and the job looked secure, I would rent a place, fix up a doghouse for him outside, and stay awhile. He was always ready to go someplace else, and so was I. I'm still ready to go there, and often wish he was still beside me.

I have to credit Finch with helping me to believe in God.

I was renting a room in a house off Charleston Avenue in Las Vegas and working as a painter on the north side of town. One night about 3:30 a.m., an earthquake occurred about a hundred miles out in the desert. It shook the house so badly that I and the other occupants went outside and watched the trees swaying until it was over. We went back to bed, and at six I arose as usual and went off to work. When I returned, Finch was gone. The quake had broken the fence. I supposed that Finch had thought, "If the earth is going to move I am out of here."

I searched every neighborhood for miles around. I put up handwritten signs in convenience stores, laundromats and gas stations. I placed an ad in the Las Vegas Sun. I knocked on doors. I went to the pound every day, examined the records, walked the cages indoors and outdoors calling him. I knew if he heard me he would emit his distinctive yip. But no yips. Finally, I got mad at the landlady--I had told her the fence was loose and she had promised to have it repaired, but never had. I moved out and into my van and was sleeping on a small hill south of town near the police pistol range from which the whole city of Las Vegas could be seen.

It was driving me crazy, imagining what could be happening to my dog. I reviewed stories I had heard of kids stuffing cherry bombs up a stray dog's butt. I remembered the cruel sounds coming from an experimental lab on the VA grounds in Los Angeles, where they tested products like hairspray by spraying the faces of monkeys, rabbits and dogs. They shoot them up with drugs and who knows what else. The story goes that organized gangs kidnap dogs and sell them to these labs, which turn a blind eye to the practice. It is such a cruel and heartless thing, another cruel and heartless thing done in the name of "saving humanity," which I sometimes think is not worth saving because of this kind of cruelty. I had heard the cries of pain while I was taking a medical terminology course. I hated that place so badly I thought about raiding it one night, tying up the technicians, and letting all the animals out. Thinking of those horrible things made me desperate to find Finch.

One night about a week into this, I was drinking a six pack in the back of the van and watching the lights come on below, and it finally got to me. I threw the beer out the back and got on my knees and pounded on the floor and yelled: GOD! PLEASE GIVE ME BACK MY DOG! IF YOU GIVE ME BACK MY DOG I WILL BELIEVE IN YOU!"

The next day I found Finch in the pound, where he had been all along. I had missed him again and again. It was an inside-outside cage situation, and I figure he must have been in when I was out and vice-versa; or maybe God didn't want me to find him. What I didn't realize was that he was also going deaf. He was one day from execution, and they wanted $110 to give him back. Payday was the next day, and I knew I could not make it from cashing my check to the pound before they killed him. I called my good friend Dave Denaro. He came down and bailed him out for me.

Then I got to thinking about it. I realized a prayer had actually been answered. There was no other explanation for it. I refuse to call it "coincidence," which is just another way of denying the existence and involvement of the God who created everything and has everything under His direct control. I figured He had been teaching me a lesson, leading me, in fact, to a saving belief. It was my first and most-powerful spiritual experience. And when I realized that God had been listening to me, frankly, it scared the hell out of me!

And I had promised! That is the kind of promise only a pure fool would break. And since that day I have kept that promise. I believe in God who saved my dog and me too.

That night I had a dream that woke me up like a bucket of cold water. I dreamed a pair of enormous eyes were only an inch from my eyes and looking directly into mine. It was as real as this coffee shop in the Marigny district of New Orleans. More real. In the end, the nightmare of losing my great and loving dog turned into an experience I can describe only as glorious. Frightening and glorious.

Finally, in Durango, Colorado, sometime in the middle nineties, I was staying in an RV in the side yard of an old (lost) friend, and Finch suddenly got old. He was fifteen. He used to drag me uphill if I had him on a leash. But he became slower and slower. Now I was dragging him uphill. One night I was walking him on a dark road and realized he was no longer beside me. He had turned around and gone home. The poor dog was sick and dying. He laid in the same place for a couple of days and refused food, and would only lap at a water bowl then go back to wherever he went in sleep.

The next morning I said a long goodbye to him after asking Jim to take Finch to the vet and put him down. I knew I could not do it. Jim and his wife obliged me, and when I called him from work, he told me that Finch's body was in the barn. When I returned home, I went there and found him dead and cried as if he had been my child. His body was heavy as dead weight, but I lugged it to the van, picked up a shovel and took it to Bureau of Land Management land (undevelopable forever) and hacked out a shallow grave. The ground was hard caliche, which is like concrete. I should have brought a pick. Finally, exhausted by the effort, I wrapped him in a nice yellow comforter and laid him in his grave. To prevent coyotes from digging him up, I covered the grave with heavy stones. I wrapped his collar and tags (green and red) around the largest rock at the head of the site, said goodbye with a lot of tears and left. Five years later I returned and the grave was still there undisturbed but the collar was gone. There were elk tracks all around. He lays there still, I hope. There is a fine view of the whole valley leading into Durango from where he lies.

I wrote a mournful letter to my grandmother about him dying. When I was about four, my uncle gave me a toy rat terrier that I named Laddie. My grandmother told me then, "The only thing wrong with having a pet is that you outlive them." She answered my letter saying, "I'm sorry about your dog. Get another dog." But I never have.

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