By Brian M. Howle
The roar of Harleys has finally subsided, and everyone on the Strand is bracing for the Memorial Weekend Bike Rally. While others whine or complain about the hassles invoked with the arrival of our two-wheeled visitors, I usually stay out of the crunch and frivolity – but not because of the usual reasons. I can’t help but be overwhelmed with the memories of two of my best friends.
In the late ‘80s, I found myself divorced and a bit alone. The whole deal had left me more than a little depressed, to be sure, but I kept the ol’ school spirit going as best I could, and faced each day with renewed pessimism.
I lived in the Little River area, at the time, and was fortunate enough to have found a perfect little 2-bedroom log cabin near the Intracoastal Waterway. My landlord had built two of them, side by side, and was renting them out for year-round use. The house was small, but served my needs perfectly, complete with a small backyard that was perfect for my dog, Dusty.
Dusty was a story in himself. An Irish Setter mix, he was found scrounging for scraps outside a local restaurant, severely emaciated and needing medical attention. The folks who found him nursed him back to health, but due to their lease agreement were unable to keep pets in their condo. They called a local radio station and had the DJ ask if anyone was willing to give him a good home.
My then-wife had been asking about our adopting a pooch for some time, and coincidentally had always shown an interest in Irish Setters. I had been stonewalling against it due to our extremely varying schedules. We both worked in print production, and our time away from home depended on deadlines, which were never met – and I didn’t want to leave the poor animal alone for 18-to-30 hours at a stretch. But we had begun to become relatively domesticated, so I ran to a phone in our office and called the DJ, who just happened to be a buddy of mine. Of course, although someone else had already called, he made sure the pup was ours. However, when I returned to the production room, I hung my head in mock disappointment and told her the dog had already been claimed.
We made arrangements to pick up the dog in clandestine fashion, as this was to be a surprise for my honey. I made some shaky excuse to stop by the dog’s soon-to-be-ex-condo, where I would retrieve some phantom musical equipment for my band. As we approached the door, the curtain in the vertical floor-to-ceiling window beside the door rustled with movement. All that was visible was a wet, black nose framed in dark red hair.
The rescuers opened the door and feigned recognition of me as they invited us inside. As soon as my ex walked in, the dog was all over her. “Oh, look, they have an Irish Setter, just like the one I want to get. Isn’t he beautiful, Brian?”, she asked in that little-child-who-wants-a-new-toy voice.
“You like him?” I innocently asked.
“Of course I do. I love him, I just love him. I want one just like this one!” she implored, as he showered her with puppy kisses and postured for tummy rubs.
“Well, what about this one? Do you want him?” I wryly played out the moment. “Alright, then … he’s yours!”
She did one of those old time movie triple-takes, back and forth between me, the dog, and the rescuers. She finally put together the scam, realized this was the dog from the radio, and then suddenly burst into tears and ran to the bathroom. I had never seen such an emotional reaction to obtaining a pet, but I was happy she was happy.
We named him Dusty; partly because he was a reddish-rudish color, and partly because my wife’s maiden name was Rhodes – and since it was HER dog, it seemed to fit.
Dusty was not a full-blooded Irish Setter, but until he was standing beside one, he looked it. I think he had some Retriever in him, as he was a good two hands taller than a true Setter – and about 40 pounds heavier. As best we could ascertain, he looked to be between two and four years of age. Once he got back to full, robust health, he was a big boy. And he was a handful.
He was a sweet, kind, wonderful dog; and in that he was no different than anyone else’s pup. But there was one major, defining difference between Dusty and most dogs. He was dumb as a stump.
Well, I say dumb because he wouldn’t listen to a darn thing you said to him. I guess he skipped obedience school, or even basic training. “Sit”, “Stay” and “Stop” were not in his vocabulary; nor were they ever going to be. But, that didn’t matter to us. He was our boy, and we loved him just the way he was.
Thus began the series of fences installed at a couple of houses we rented through the following years. The first was the most important learning curve, because that’s where I discovered my “dumb” dog could climb a fence like a monkey. An investment in an electric fence charger solved that problem.
We still spent some hours away from home, so we adopted a little brother to keep him company. A true mongrel, Beauregard was a small, long-haired little blonde rascal with Benji eyes. Beau’s most redeeming quality, besides being Dusty’s companion, was that he listened. And believe it or not, when Dusty astutely observed Beau’s rewards for following instructions, dang if he didn’t begin to copy him. They busted out once while we were asleep, causing us a full day of distress until a security guard at Ocean Lakes Campground called the radio station and said he had them rounded up. When we picked them up, they were blistered, sunburned and dehydrated – along with being green from wading through a nearby stagnant ditch – but they were happily back at home.
The “boys” eventually had to stay with her parents inland, because we had moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets. After our divorce, I moved to the log cabin, and obtained custody due to the fact that I now had a yard to fence in for him.
So, Dusty and I lived quietly in our little cabin. My neighbor in the sister cabin was an a bit of an oddball, claiming to be a mercenary awaiting assignment in South Africa at the time. He backed it up by strolling onto his porch one Sunday morning, where he proceeded to empty a clip from his extremely illegal Mac-10 machine pistol, much to my startled surprise. I made an immediate mental note, “Do not aggravate the neighbor.” As a result, I didn’t hang out with him a whole lot.
One weekend he acquired a roommate of the female persuasion, which lasted for all of three weeks. But during that time, she brought home newly-weaned twin, white kittens. They rambled around their porch and yard when she let them out, so I never saw them that much. But then, the girl moved out and left the kittens behind. The mercenary wasn’t about to waste any time on them, and they slowly but surely ventured over to my front porch.
Now, I was not a cat person, not in any way, shape or form. We had a stray cat that essentially pounded out a couple of litters every year for a few years when I was growing up, but she was semi-feral and never really bonded with humans. My parents made sure the kittens got homes as soon as possible, so I never really spent any time around cats to speak of. I had a dog, and that was just fine by me.
But, being a sucker for animals in general, I couldn’t ignore their pleading little “mews” whenever I arrived home. They kept back a bit, tentatively assessing me, but one was a little bolder than the other. I befriended him first, and he quickly stole my heart. He was sociable, amiable and sweet as could be – and this was all a great new experience for me. I decided to befriend his sibling and bring him inside the plantation, too.
This was when I first named them, although it didn’t stick. I tagged them Able and Cain, because as sweet as the first one was, the other was pure evil. He hissed, he yowled, and he would sink those little hypodermic-needle-teeth into you in a heartbeat. Try as I might, he never really came around, and soon disappeared.
Dusty had the outside, happily, all to himself – and the kitten ruled the house. His penetrating little sky-blue eyes allowed nothing to escape his attention, and the blur of white fur rocketed around the room in pure delight. I went out and bought the full complement of cat stuff, from a litter box to cat-nip felt mice to little clear acrylic balls with spinning medallions inside. He enjoyed them immensely, but seemed drawn to my electric guitar when it came time to catnap. Every time I would plug it in and begin to play, the switch for the pickups would be flipped to single-coil due to the cat’s positioning on top of it during his naps. The single-coil sound is what a Fender Stratocaster guitar sounds like – so I named him Strat.
Strat was a unique little guy. I placed his litter box in the tub, where the stray granules would be easier to collect, and also as a means of controlling guest’s induced query, as they sniff noticeably, “Oh, do you have a cat?”
Every time I went into the bathroom, Strat came along. He intensely followed my every move – which was sorta unnerving at times – and I swear, you could almost see him putting stuff together in his little head.
One morning, I strolled into the bathroom to brush my teeth and – for a brief moment – was overwhelmed with the odor of cat urine. I leaned over to check the litter box in the tub, but it was relatively clean. So I just chalked it up to being closed in overnight and made a mental note to keep the door open at night. The next morning, I again encountered the whiff of kitty pee while brushing my teeth, but it subsided and passed any further thought.
That night, as I was watching television, I caught a light blur in my peripheral vision, in the shadows of the bathroom. I looked over and watched in disbelief as Strat jumped up on the vanity, walked around the sink once and then delicately squatted over the drain – where he relieved himself with quiet dignity.
That immediately solved the odor mystery.
That little rascal would sit and watch the water drain from anything – sink, tub, and toilet. He figured out all the fluid went away down that drain, and bypassed the litter box in the process.
But that’s not the clincher. When I caught him “in the act”, I picked him up gently and placed him on the toilet. He looked at me, like, “Oh, you prefer me over here on this thing, huh?” and proceeded to continue with his business.
I never had to buy cat litter again with Strat.
His astonishing list of feats continued. He learned – on his own – how to open every door inside the cabin. Bathroom, bedroom and laundry pantry doors were no deterrent to his intention of getting to the other side. Of course, kitchen and bathroom cabinets also fell into his repertoire, so some repositioning of poisons was required on my part.
And so, with these two domesticated animals to guide me, I slowly found myself again. I had sealed myself off from most of the world because of depression – but Dusty and Strat would not let me drown myself in pity. They gave me the reason I needed to persevere with life, when no one else seemed to be able to.
I moved back into Myrtle Beach a year later, after finding a nice little house in the middle of town. Dusty had a completely fenced-in yard at his disposal, and Strat had new doors and cabinets to conquer. My self confidence was back and better than ever, my work was steady and satisfying, and life was good.
One morning I awoke to an unfamiliar sound – but a sound that struck immediate concern. I peered into the kitchen and saw Strat, and my heart sank. He was sitting rigidly, as cats do when coughing up hairballs – but this was not a hairball incident. His little face had an expression of unbridled fear, and his body was frozen in position. I scooped him up in my arms, and his eyes stayed fixed on mine. Not knowing what to do, I held him up to my ear – to listen to his breathing – to try and figure out if it was a hairball or if he was choking.
My sinking heart neared shattering when I realized he was not breathing, so I flipped him over and whacked him on the back a couple of times to dislodge anything which might be stuck in his windpipe. Nothing – he still wasn’t breathing. Although I’d never done it – nor had I ever imagined doing it – I instinctively began to give him mouth-to-mouth, as I rushed to get dressed. I managed to get decent enough to rush him to the vet, all the while attempting to resuscitate him. They took him into the back, as the closing door left me alone to my thoughts in a little waiting cubicle. As I waited, I prayed.
About 15 minutes later, the vet came into the room, and I knew immediately it was not good. He saw how distraught I was over Strat’s condition, and he was choosing his words very carefully as he began to explain the problem. Strat had a congenital heart condition, and it was inoperable. He began to advise me that it would be best to have him put to sleep, because this was terminal, and he would not recover.
Two hours earlier, my life was good. Now, the conduit for my reemergence into the world of people was fighting for his life, and I was being told to decide to end it for him. I asked the vet to bring him to me, as I began to fall apart, so that I could tell him goodbye. He hesitated at that idea, saying that it would be best just to walk away. But I refused, insisting on seeing my buddy one last time. He shook his head and walked back to get Strat for me.
When he opened the door to my little cubicle, Strat was limply draped across his arm, showing no strength. But when his little blue eyes saw me, his ears perked up, his tail went up and he jumped into my arms. As Strat purred loudly in my ear, the vet shook his head, laughed in disbelief and said, “I’ve never seen a cat in that much distress rebound that quickly. Maybe you’re right; maybe he’s better off with you.”
He gave me some medicines and supplements to make his condition more bearable, but the vet made sure I understood his prognosis, which was terminal. I figured any time I had with Strat was precious, so we held off on euthanasia. The most time he would give Strat was six weeks, tops.
Strat lived for another six months. He was a fighter to the very end.
He finally succumbed to his disease after another attack landed him in the vet’s office. My landlady let me bury him in my yard, underneath the bedroom window where he watched the birds feed. Dusty seemed to understand what had happened, and stayed uncharacteristically to himself the following week.
One week after Strat died, Dusty became acutely ill shortly after I had brought him inside for the night. He couldn’t stand up, and began acting disoriented. It was after midnight, and I didn’t have a car at the time, so an emergency trip to the vet was not an option. I grabbed a blanket, wrapped Dusty in it and walked down to the beach. I held him there all night in the cool May seabreeze, talking to him and soothing him as he quietly struggled for life. He died in my arms, shortly after sunrise. The vet said it was cancer, unseen and undetectable until the last days.
I buried him underneath his shade tree, not ten feet from where Strat lay. In a week’s time, the two best friends I had in my life were taken away. But the love and companionship they gave me allowed me to slowly crawl my way back into the world – and gave me the time I needed to find myself, and to help me heal my heart.
Which, is what best friends do, after all.
The previous column was originally published May 23, 2002.