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A dog story for Matt & Max of Garage Logic

Gumption County, Minnesota






THE LEGEND

(Originally appeared in OUTSIDE MAGAZINE)

Randy Wayne White ©


Once, visiting the Key West docks, I struck up a conversation with a shrimper, a true Conch, which is to say he talked through his nose and wore white rubber boots. When I told him where I was from--a coastal town more than 400 miles away--he said, "Hey now, you ever heared about that dog what they got up there?"

Dog?

"Yeah, that there dog. Dog can swim underwater and bring up cement blocks--whole ones--from 15 feet a water, then swim them back to shore. Big brown curly lab. And understands words. Say this dog can swim-down fish; catch them, too. Catches snook, reds, even a shark once. A friend of mine was talking it around the docks. An ol' boy he knew, knew somebody what'd seen it. Man, I'd love to have one a his pups."

The shrimper thought I might know something about the stories, being from the town where this dog was said to live, and that led to us into a discussion of other dogs, dogs neither of us had really encountered but had heard much about. The shrimper told me the story of the grouper-boat cocker spaniel that twice saved all hands, once by leading them to a fire in the dunnage box, another time by waking them when the anchor broke during a storm. Then he told me about the shrimp-boat golden retriever that dived overboard and drowned itself on the first trip after its owner drowned. The golden, it was said, had a 200-word vocabulary and knew the days of the week. It was a great loss, felt by all.

I had already heard both of these stories, and the shrimper had probably heard my stories about the feral hog that killed 27 catch dogs but was finally brought down by a collie-rottweiler mix and about the pit bull from La Belle that would sin its teeth into a moving truck tire and flop around and around until the truck stopped.

All regions have their legendary dogs, and it has been my experience that outdoor people collect those stories, knowingly or not, perhaps because dogs, unlike people, are still safe harbors for exaggeration. We can tell the wildest tales abut animals we have never met, absolutely fearless in the certainty that our wonder and our admiration will never be dashed by a "60 Minutes" expose or Senate subcommittee hearings. That people are human is a reality beyond escape; that dogs are not makes them, perhaps, the last stronghold of legend.

The shrimper had wanted to know about the dog in my town--the dog that could retrieve cement blocks and out-swim fish, that understood words. But instead of telling the truth, I told him what he wanted to hear, because, although I had not propagated the legend, I was necessarily, through association and loyalty, one of its protectors. And I did know the truth. The dog he was describing was once my dog.


I called him Gator because that's the animal he most resembled while in the water and because, like the reptile, he possessed certain quirks of character not normally ascribed to creatures allowed outside a zoo, let alone welcomed into a house. He was not a lab, though I still occasionally hear him called that. He was a Chesapeake Bay retriever, seven months old when I got him from an Everglades hunting guide and already the subject of dark rumors, though I did not know it at the time. A northern client had given him to the guide as a present, but the guide, who favored tall pointers and catch dogs, didn't know what to do with him. He was kept in a run wit the guide's pit bulls until the Chesapeake--then called Wolf because of his yellow eyes--opened the carotid artery on a prize bitch. The guide decided to try and sell the dog, and if that didn't work, he's shoot him and burn the damn papers. All this I heard later.

Coincidentally, I had recently ended an 11-year association with a nice setter and was looking for a new breed to try. Most people who like dogs have some vague mental list of breeds they admire, and at that time I was learning toward a Border collie, a flat-coated retriever, or a nice mixed-breed from the humane society. See, the difficulty in choosing a good dog now is that some of the great breeds have suffered a the hands of pet-store puppy factories and certain low-life bench-show fanatics who have bred only for confirmation or cash flow, and I did not want one of their mindless, hyperactive progeny. It was then that I happened to read an article about a Chesapeake that had leapt into a flooded creek and pulled out a drowning child. I liked that. I had one very young son and another on the way, and I lived on a creek. I began to research the breed--just as anyone contemplating dog ownership should. There were relatively few Chesapeakes in the country (little chance of overbreeding), and only the most generous of souls would describe them as pretty (of no interest to the puppy factories). Everything I read, I liked, so after I had the dog x-rayed for hip dysplasia, and after I listened patiently while the guide insisted the dog had championship bloodlines (I've yet to see a registered dog that didn't), Gator ended up in my home.

Every dog I have ever owned learned the basic obedience commands--to sit, to stay, to heel, and to come without hesitation--within about four weeks of short, daily training sessions. Gator took twice that long, but once he learned something, it was as if it had been etched in stone--an appropriate metaphor, considering his intellect. The dog was no Einstein, but the orders he did learn, he carried out like a Marine. What I didn't have to teach him was how to get things out of the water.  Water was to Gator what air is to birds. On land, he might lose himself in the mangroves (more than once) or run into walls (often), but water transformed him into a fluid being, a graceful creature on a mission from God. The mission was simple: There were things in the creek--many things--that needed to be brought out. Our backyard became a littered mess of barnacled branches, shells, and other flotsam, even though each exit from the creek required Gator latch his paws over the lip of a stone wall and haul himself over, much like doing a pull-up. Since the dog did this hundreds of times a day, month after month, his chest and forelegs quite naturally became huge. And as the dog grew, so did the size of the things retrieved. Tree branches became whole tree limbs. Shells became rocks--big rocks--for the dog learned early on that if the creek's surface was sometimes bare, the creek's bottom always held treasure. On a flood tide, the water was seven feet deep and murky, but it made no difference. He would dive down and hunt and hunt until I thought surely a real gator had taken him, only to reappear 20 yards away, a rock or a limb in his mouth. One morning I was sitting on the stoop reading, when I noticed a neighbor's Boston Whaler vectoring pilotless toward our property. I thought this odd, until I realized my dog was towing it home. He had chewed the lines free, and an emergency survey of other mooring lines in the area provided strong evidence that, had I accepted the Whaler, a 30-foot Chris- Craft would have soon followed.

During that era of boat thievery, four more things occurred that enhanced Gator's already growing reputation in the region: He dove underwater and retrieved his first cement block, he caught his first fish, he got an ear infection, and he jumped through a second-story window to attack a pit bull. Swimming the block ashore didn't surprise me, though the stranger who came asking to see the dog and threw the block seemed genuinely shocked. Catching the fish did surprise me, because I had watched Gator sit on the dock studying waking fish, only to dive and miss them year after year. Finally, though, he did manage to stun one and swim it down, and he brought it to me, his tail wagging mildly (a wild display of emotion for that dog): a ten-pound jack crevalle that swam strongly away when I released it. The ear infection was a more subtle touch. It required an operation that left the dog's head listing slightly to the left, and people who came to se him would say, "See there? He knows we're talking about him, and he's trying to understand," for the tilt did lend an air of rakish interest to an otherwise blank expression.

Added to all of this were Gator's all-too-frequent displays of his own dark nature. Spending his earliest months in a run with pit bulls had left him with a jaundiced view of dogs in general and pit bulls in particular. I could take him jogging on free heel, and he would never look at another dog. But if one strayed onto the property, bad things happened. We were moving into a new stilt house when a big pit bill came trotting into the yard, giving great ceremony to his decisions about where to pee. I had been warned about this dog; he had free rein in the neighborhood terrorizing pets and children, and the owners would do nothing. Gator was on the upstairs porch, watching with me through the screened window--and then, suddenly he was no longer there. It took me along, dull moment to understand what had happened, looking through the broken screen as Gator, making an odd chirping sound because the wind had been knocked out of him, attacked the pit bull.

I consider what he did that day less an act of bravery than just one more demonstration that certain basic concepts--the effects of gravity, for instance--were utterly beyond him. I don't doubt for a moment that he would have dived into a flooded creek to pull out a drowning child. But he would have gone in just as quickly to rescue a log or a Volkswagen. We love to attribute to animals those noble qualities that we lack but often long for.

Television stations sometimes called to see if I would allow them to do a piece on Gator (always refused), just as the friends of friends sometimes stopped by to watch the dog who swam underwater, and more than I once I have heard a stranger describe my own dog to me with details as wondrous as they were exaggerated. But Gator was just a dog, a good dog who minded well, and he was mine. Where I went, he followed. He was good with the boys, didn't yap, didn't hump, didn't eat the furniture, didn't jump up on strangers unless he meant to bite them, only stole one boat unless you count canoes, and wouldn't have gone for the cavalry if I had waited a year. He wasn't an overly affectionate dog, either; he liked to have his ears scratched, but I can only remember one time in our nine years that he actually licked me. I had given up hunting because I simply took no joy anymore in killing for sport, but I had made that decision without giving any thought to the animal I had trained exactly for that purpose. I had, I realized too late, defected, in a small way, to the ranks of bad breeders and bench-show fanatics by robbing another working dog of its heritage.


So I decided to give it one more try. I loaded Gator and shotgun into the boat and ran the tidal creek into a saw-grass march where I knew there were brackish ponds that held scaup and mallards. It was a fine day for ducks: February gray and windy, with a sea fog over the bay. Gator felt good: He kept his ears perked like a puppy, and his yellow eyes glowed, and I wondered, How can he know? It had been years since we had hunted, but now, as then, he understood that this was not playtime; cement blocks and sunken logs were meaningless; this was what he was born for, this was work. I positioned him at the water's edge, close enough that my left hand could reach his ears, and we waited. I missed two easy shots before I finally took a single, a mallard drake, and Gator vibrated beneath my hand, listening for the release--Bird!--before sliding into the water, throwing a wake in the dark chop as he found the mallard and pivoted as if equipped with a keel. I watched him swimming toward me, that big, brown, tilted head, and those eyes. He should have brought the bird to my feet and then sat, but he didn't; he couldn't. His hips were ruined by disease, and he licked my hand as I scooped him up, telling me it hurt when I held him that way, but there was only one alternative, and that would come soon enough.

I carried him back to the boat, and drove him toward his rendezvous with 9cc of pentobarbital and the grave I had already dug for him.