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.


Emily Barton said...

I had completely forgotten about how that woman picked the mother up by her skin until now. I also don't remember being quite so cruel to Henry, but then again, seeing as we were the ones who used to put kittens up on rafters in the basement to hear them meow when they couldn't get down, I don't doubt it. Also, it might explain how a dog with those sorts of genes might have turned into what he did.

Ian said...

See, I don't remember the kittens in the rafters. I think we've opened up a can of worms here, but really, I don't think it was our cruelty that made Henry the way he was. Our other pets were okay and affectionate. The instances with Henry were few and far between I believe. And after a while, he was too mean to play tricks on.

Charlotte said...

My grandmother bred bassets for a while and I remember them being completely soppy and gentle. Henry must have a rogue gene! But he's left you with a lot of memories, and he sounds like he was a complete character.

My oldest is begging for a pet, but I think we'll also be waiting until she can do her share of the pet caring - I just can't deal with any more poop right now. Seven years of nappies have left me rathr jaded in that department.

Froshty said...

I remember that one of the reasons that Mom and Daddy allowed Emily to have Henry is that Lindsay and I (the two older sisters) lobbied hard on Emily's behalf because we wanted to be like our high school friends who were forever bringing their cute dogs (I remember a Dalmation in particular) to the soccer games. Now that I'm an adult and an owner of a fantastically cute, non-inbred dog, I can see the error of my lobbying ways. Emily's right; Henry really hated me. Whenever I'd come home from college, he'd either hump me or try to pee on me. And the only Easter Egg he destroyed was mine. I think he realized early on that I was a cat person.