Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Here's to Henry

Emily, I am still trying to find a picture of Henry. I know I have one around, and as soon as I find it, I will add it to the post.

It is interesting that I should be starting this post about a notorious family dog while the Westminster Dog Show is going on in the next room (On TV, not in my actual living room). Right now they are cheering the winners of the working group. My current, not-very-notorious-dog is disinterestedly curled up on his wolf blanket, oblivious to these dogs prancing by on the floor of Madison Square Garden.

I haven’t seen a basset hound yet, I don’t know what group they would fall under, the unbelievably-long-eared group, the jowly group, the drooly group, the short-legged-squat-body group; I’m not sure. The breed makes me think of that song we used to sing as kids, “Do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro, can you tie ‘em in a knot can you tie ‘em in a bow.” I think they should play this song as the champion basset makes his run around the floor. It’s also interesting to think that this revered venue, where Patrick Ewing used to roam, can inspire cheers for something as oddly shaped as a basset hound. One thing is for sure, the only basset hound I ever knew well would have probably bitten someone’s ankle before making it to the grooming stand.

Emily wanted a basset hound. She thought they were cute, and they were, I suppose, with droopy eyes, and ears longer than the wingspan of a California condor. They had great floppy jowls, and loose, pliable skin--as if someone had tried to make a dog suit after ten gin-and-tonics. They waddled when they walked. They seemed sweet, sort of a smaller version of the bloodhounds we would see sleeping on the porch on the set of Hee Haw. German Shepherds were the dangerous dogs of the day, and the most notorious of all dogs was the Doberman Pincer. We had never heard of a Pit Bull back then. Basset hounds fell under the category of innocuous conversation pieces.

He may have been a birthday present for Emily, and I’m sure she will be better at describing why we ended up with the dog, but when I was about ten or eleven—the same era as the tombstone I believe—we got Henry, the basset hound. We went way out to an area outside of Winston-Salem called Pfafftown to pick him out. I want to say we found out about the puppies from the newspaper but I’m not sure on that one either. When we got there, we were greeted by a large woman in a tank-top with the vernacular habits of that part of the North Carolina piedmont. It seems to me that her jaw was working on some gum, but who knows, there’s a good chance it was tobacco. Was it a trailer Emily? At her feet was a full grown basset barking in the deep tones of a walrus. There was a little growling going on too. “That’s Mama.” said the tank-top lady.

Emily made a remark about how loose the skin on the dog was and the lady, as if to show us an advantage of that loose skin, grabbed two handfuls off the dogs back and lifted her up. The dog looked uncomfortable but resigned, like a long-eared duffel bag. Then she carried it out to the deck and closed the glass sliding door, where the dog continued to stomp around and howl.

We were introduced to the puppies next, and if the adult basset registers high on the cute scale, the puppies break the scale into pieces. Completely droopy and miniature, the pups climbed and yipped around, and Emily’s intoxication by cuteness was damn near palpable by that time. She was around thirteen, and any trip into her room was met with dozens of button-eyes staring in every direction from stuffed frogs, bears, pigs, rabbits and her favorite, I assume she still has it, a panda named Pandy. Now, her stuffed animals were about to be trumped by a living, moving thing. How she made the decision to pick Henry, I can’t tell you. Maybe her post will tell of the signs that told her he was the one.

Okay, now, for some reason I’m getting the idea that Daddy walked out of that trailer, or house or whatever, with dog pee on his pant’s leg. Is this right Emily? It is possible that the poetic license gene is taking over at this moment and I am subconsciously inventing that fact in order to provide foreshadowing for upcoming events. Although I don’t actually remember it happening, I seem to remember it being talked about whenever we revisit this episode.

Emily decided to name the dog Henry, and my Dad allowed this only under the stipulation that he was to be named Henry Plantagenet after Henry the Eighth. We were always naming our animals using weird historical context. We had a dog name Chung Lung who was named after an obscure Chinese Emperor. My mother wanted to give one of our cats the very unPC name of Confederate because she was grey. The majority won out on that one, and although her official name remained Confederate, everyone called her Boo Boo. We had an old cat that I barely remember named Solomon as well. Before I was born, my parents had two dachshunds, one while my dad was working on a PHD in history named Phud and another who was unceremoniously named Kraut.

Henry’s puppyhood seemed to be uneventful from what I remember. Friends marveled at his ears and his waddling ability. You could pick him up fairly easily, but not by the skin. I have to admit that I tried this, and it was met with a dramatic yelping. We spent a lot of time testing the threshold of this strange dog, and looking back now I imagine that we were quite cruel at times. Henry would eat anything, which is not a good trait for a dog with curious and bored children around. We enjoyed watching him working his jaws over on a super-chewy Swedish Fish candy. He was extremely covetous, so getting him to snatch up a lemon slice by acting like you were going to grab it provoked remarkably distorted puckering on a face already humorous to view. The thing was, although we knew the taste of the lemon was unpleasant for him, he always grabbed it again, never letting us take it from him.

He, like many dogs, loved to play tag. Our house was built so you could run a circuitous route around the downstairs, and we would get him to chase us around and around endlessly. Every part of that route was carpeted except the kitchen, so when we reached the kitchen, our Keds kept us balanced, but Henry’s unclipped toenails and padded feet would lose traction and send him flailing into the stove. The sound of the dog hitting the oven door and then scrambling back onto his feet to continue the chase is still with me, and, like the lemon, Henry would never relent, tenacious to the end.

One Easter, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Easter of 1978, I came home from school to find a ruckus going on over Henry. I couldn’t quite tell what was going on at first, but finally found out that Henry had eaten all of the Austrian Easter Eggs. What the hell is an Austrian Easter Egg, you might be asking. An Austrian Easter Egg, or these particular Austrian Easter Eggs, were intricately decorated confectionaries shaped to look like Faberge Eggs. They were wrapped in crinkly plastic and my mother had been putting them out as decoration for Easter for longer than I could remember. At times we dreamed of eating them (they were made of hardened sugar and about the size of an ostrich egg) but we knew that, by this time, they were inedible. Henry, unfortunately, did not know this.

He had made his way up the dining room table by jumping on a chair, and I can picture him standing on top of the table devouring what he could of the stale sugar, crystals glued to his slobbering jowls. I suppose, with all of our candy +dog=humor experiments we had turned Henry into one of us, a sugar addict.

Henry’s behavior took a turn for the worse as he got older. Admittedly, our treatment of him didn’t help matters—we once put him in a sleeping bag at the top of the stairs—but I also speculate that the growling, stomping, howling beast (his mother) at the feet of the tank-top lady was an indication of the breeding of this particular bloodline. His most infuriating behavioral problem was to grab something that could be enormously harmful to him, say a steak knife, and proceed to sit under the dining room table, which had become his own personal lair, and guard it like the dragon guarding the gold in Beowulf.

When he would do this, someone would suggest to someone else that that someone should go get the knife away from Henry. The second someone would refuse bluntly and say “are you crazy.” Then the dilemma would be whether to let Henry stab himself in the neck, or risk getting your arm taken off by a badger-like basset in order to save Henry from himself. We never thought to distract him with something else. As we got near, he would start a low growl, and as we approached he would give us a warning bark, loud and unflinching. Any closer, and he would grab up the harmful item to let us know that he wasn’t budging.

It was a stand-off like this one that led to the beginning of the end of our ownership of Henry. Upstairs in my room, I heard another commotion coming from downstairs and, by this time, had become used to it usually having to do with Henry. I came downstairs and saw an unfazed Henry under the dining room table and the rest of my family gathered around in the TV room. I seem to remember exclamations about the dog and some soothing words from my mother. I again tried to discern what was going on. I finally succeeded. Henry had bitten my sister Lindsay.

We tried to give Henry away after that. We passed him on to an unsuspecting couple, and the next day, as we were lamenting the loss of the dog, we saw the car of the couple coming back up the driveway. Henry was coming back. He had bitten the husband.

Soon the entire family moved to England for the year. We left Henry in the care of my Aunt, who ended up passing him on, like a foster child, to someone else. His offence? He bit my uncle.

I’m fairly certain of Henry’s fate, but I don’t like to think of it. It is difficult to think that this angry, stubborn dog had to go the way of so many other disobedient canines, who never make it to the accolades of Westminster. I feel bad for Emily too. She’s never once complained that the hopes she had for her little long-eared companion ended so badly, and I worried that in choosing this topic, I might be bringing up some buried regrets in her. But we laugh a great deal when we talk about Henry, and Emily is nothing if not resilient. I’ll just end this post with the image of Henry, sitting for eternity under a dining room table, growling at God.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Henry -- Emily

When I was in sixth grade, I got it into my head that I wanted a basset hound. Down at the end of the dirt road where Ian and I liked to go exploring lived a family that had two basset hounds named Snoopy and Pepper. These were two of the sweetest and most docile pets, who’d lie around on the grass or mope around a little with their noses and ears to the ground, and I just loved the way they occasionally ran around on their wrinkled, short little legs. That year, I also met a basset hound who would escape from wherever he lived and come hang out on the playground at my school. Examining his collar, I noted one day that “Henry” was written on it in black magic marker. Not being one of the most original children, I decided when I got my basset hound, his name would be Henry.

I have no idea how I managed to convince my parents that I should have my very own dog, and that this dog should be a basset hound. We had never before bought an animal. Our pets had all been acquired either through friends whose cat had had yet another litter of kittens, friends who’d been given a dog they didn’t want, or the pound. All I know is that one day early that summer, we piled into the car with my father to go look at the litter of puppies. This was when we encountered one of the biggest and meanest basset hounds I’d ever seen (of course, I’d really only seen the three, I think, up until that point, but still): Henry’s mother. “Bitch” was an appropriate word for her. My father always said that should have been a warning to us, their dragging this growling and snarling animal into another room, so we could examine the puppies in the basket, and I could choose the one I wanted, but how were we to know that these adorable little puppies, waddling around and stepping on their ears, might inherit that nasty temper?

I picked out my Henry, the one that most resembled Pepper from down the street, with a few brown freckles on his white snout and a black back, and then we left with the promise he would be mine in just a few short weeks, once he’d been weaned from Demon Mama. Meanwhile, I prepared myself to be the best little caretaker that dog could ever want. I’d eavesdropped enough on adult conversation to know that all fathers’ (including my own) big joke about children having pets of their own was that the parents still did all the work. Nobody was going to be able to say that about me. This dog was going to be my responsibility, and he would be the model of obedience, as well as my best friend.

And I was a very good caretaker (even earning my father’s praise for my attentiveness to my duties). Once he arrived home, I set up his basket for him, carefully arranging old blankets and sheets in it, fed him his puppy chow, and took on with a vengeance the tough task of housebreaking him. In those days, when corporal punishment was still an accepted tool for raising children, let alone dogs, this meant swatting the poor little puppy with a rolled up newspaper every time he “had an accident” in the kitchen or on the front porch, the only two places he was allowed to be until he’d mastered the art of doing his business outside. Luckily, he seemed to get through this phase fairly quickly, as it broke my heart to have to use that newspaper. One could argue that this sort of “training” is what ruined Henry, and I might be tempted to agree, except all our other puppies throughout my childhood and teen years were all trained in exactly the same manner, and they all grew up to be sweet, happy dogs.

Henry was most definitely a case of Saddam-Hussein-like nature ruling over nurture. Despite all the love and attention I lavished on him that summer, it didn’t take too long for us to realize he was anything but sweet, cuddly, and docile. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a dog that didn’t get into more trouble than he did. He loved getting into the garbage so much, and it was so impossible to keep him out of it, that we got into the habit of putting the kitchen garbage pail up on top of the counters, not the most sanitary of practices, but better than having garbage strewn all over the kitchen floor.

Around the time we got Henry, Ian and I had begun to grow tired of our explorations on top of the garage roof, a relatively small building detached from the house. We’d graduated, much to my parents’ horror, to the roof of the house. The windows off of Ian’s bedroom led to the roof of the front porch, and we found we could easily detach the screens, climb out, wander around on it, and then boost ourselves up onto the main roof. Because my parents were horrified by this new game of ours, we’d gotten into the habit of only doing it when they weren’t home, which meant we were often racing back through windows when we spotted a car turning in at the top of the driveway, forgetting to replace the screens. And, of course, being kids, we didn’t always remember to shut the windows, either.

One day, we four kids had all been out together, and when Forsyth turned the car into the driveway, we noticed something walking around up on the porch roof. Closer inspection revealed that it was Henry. By now, we were all somewhat afraid of him, even I (who still adored him. After all, he was mine, and I wasn’t going to abandon him just because he was a little hot-headed). That sweet, sad, basset hound exterior was just a disguise for an evil entity. Even when we were trying to keep him from harming himself, he’d turn into Kujo. He once got hold of a bottle cap, but when Lindsay, afraid he might cut his tongue, tried to get it away from him, he chased her across the kitchen, and she had to resort to jumping up on the kitchen table to get away from him. Normally, one expects such stories to be told about truly fierce-looking dogs, dobermans, say. Imagine the humiliation of having to tell people we were all terrorized by a basset hound. I have forgotten how we finally managed to get him off the roof; probably it involved luring him with some sort of food, but we might have been better off just leaving him out there.

Forsyth was convinced Henry especially had it in for her, and I’m not inclined to disagree. For instance, we had these lovely shellacked sugar Easter eggs that had been made by a friend of my parents for each of us three girls at some point (obviously when we were extremely young, and Ian had not yet arrived on the scene). Each one had an opening at the end, covered with plastic, and when you looked inside, there was a little scene of bunnies and chicks. We’d set these decorations out in the middle of the dining room table, and that Easter Henry climbed up on the table and proceeded to eat all of Forsyth’s egg and to just sort of nibble at Lindsay’s and mine. It was no consolation to Forsyth that ours had also both been ruined. After all, hers was gone.

When Henry was two years old, my mother finally decided he was just too much. She wanted to find another home for him, one where he could maybe get the sort of attention our busy family had never really been able to give him. I was heartbroken. Despite all his faults, I still loved the dog. I finally gave in, though, when we found a family that had raised basset hounds and was looking for a stud for their female. The sad day arrived, and I couldn’t bare it, and told my mother to have them come pick him up while I was at school. I said my goodbyes that morning, expecting never to see him again.

When I got home from school the next day, there he was! It turned out he had spent all his time in his new home chasing and scaring the dog that was meant to be his mate, and his new family had decided they didn’t want him. My mother still remembers both the vindictive look in his face as she saw him staring at her through the window of their car the day they drove him up the driveway as well as the look of utter triumph as she spied him staring through the window, as they drove back down the driveway to deliver the dog they couldn’t wait to return. Had we been so stupid as to think we could get rid of him that easily?

Henry’s days were numbered, though. We moved to England not too long after that, and we couldn’t take him with us. He roomed with my aunt and uncle, but when he bit my uncle, they finally decided they’d had enough of him. We were told, my parents protecting us from death and destruction as they always did, that he’d gone off to live on a farm with a pack of basset hounds, where he was very happy. I imagine that pack of basset hounds was somewhere in doggy hell, where Henry’s tail become pointed, little horns grew on either side of his ears, and he learned to spit fire from the rooftops of houses.