I DON'T EVEN LIKE DOGS
August 2009. Oldtown, Maryland.
Gerry, a retired white bearded postman whom I had only just met earlier in the day, sat across from me on his two-sectional sofa. He regarded me intensely yet curiously like a bug on a rock as either an entomologist bent on studying it would. Or a madman intent on squashing it.
There was a looming, uncertain feeling in the late night air that made me a tad edgy. His wife, Bettie, the only certified animal rehabilitation rescuer in western Maryland - and the only reason I was there in their house that evening, had retired earlier leaving only me and him watching TV on the couch.
But I was regarding him equally as I had done so with dozens of strangers before him.
Engage and smile graciously. Then disengage but don’t seem confrontational or discourteous. It’s a survival strategy you learn to hone on the road staying in unfamiliar houses and with hosts utterly unknown to you but no matter how skilled you think you’ve become in survival, you’re never entirely certain you’ve mastered it.
When you’re on the road, you see, you never let your guard down. And you never let anyone around you know it.
The TV was dialed into some BBC thriller Gerry was raving about earlier in the evening that involved serial killers. Great. That’s exactly what I wanted to watch while surrounded by dozens of venomous snakes. As part of Bettie’s wildlife rescue efforts she had saved rattlers, copperheads, and a whole host of other lethal reptiles that were encaged in their living room plus one evil prairie dog in our spare guest room hell bent on breaking loose and putting the hurt on me, Hudson and Murphy, gnashing us to the bone.
What the hell am I doing here when I could just as easily be camping out on the C & O towpath as we had done hundreds of nights before?
And then, after many uncomfortable commercial breaks, Gerry spoke.
“You’re not at all what I expected”.
Honestly, I wasn’t surprised at all that these were his first singular utterances to me nor taken aback by the apparent effrontery. By that time, I was kind of used to it. Most people I’d met on our journey had prior expectations and a mental image of what this ‘Man’ who had sold his stuff and started walking cross county should look, sound, and seem like - A super human genetic hybrid between Bear Grylls and Gandhi.
The folks in Bowling Green, Kentucky even asked me if I drank beer. I still laugh at that.
It was like I was made into the myth that William Wallace was in Braveheart, a ten foot tall giant who shot lightning bolts from his eyes and fireballs from his arse.
I was about to launch into the ‘Aww, shucks I’m just a southern boy’ speech when Gerry interrupted my thoughts and continued his.
“No, I mean, you’re like a normal guy. I was expecting a vegan, PETA card carrying, animal rights zealot doo-dad.”
‘Heh’, I laughed under my breath and thought to myself. You don’t even know. I never even used to like dogs.
That’s not entirely correct but it is technically and my love of and devotion to dogs developed despite my upbringing, shit, despite me and not because of it.
Growing up, like most normal boys, I had a whole host of creatures I called pets whether furry, scaly, slimy, or feathered at one time or another - from box turtles to lizards, tarantulas, gerbils, scorpions, and even a ball python. But our household was home to the softer, more mammalian and snuggly kind, too.
There was a Siamese cat we had, Papanicolaou, named so by my mother after the doctor who developed the Pap smear for reasons to this day that still elude me and remain inexplicable. Then there was Wally, a ghostly white cat with extraordinary hunting abilities.
Jenny, true to the black lab breed, was just about the sweetest dog I ever did meet. Loyal and full of love, I think I drew a picture of her once in grade school. But man, her noxious farts would disperse a room full of my friends in 0.2 seconds like tear gas and a flashbang and that’s the lone, lasting memory I really have of her.
Sure, my younger years were replete with pets of all sorts, but not necessarily a love for them. They were all well-kept and cared for in the Robinson household but they were always in the backdrop of our daily lives. I cannot recall one single vacation we took as a family where any of our dogs came with us.
Reflecting on it now, it seems the animals in and out of our lives were playthings meant to preoccupy me and my three brothers and for my parents as filler to float the holes in their marriage. As I am older now, and though a bit wiser and longer on in the years, why companion animals sometimes become surrogates to our personal disappointments and stand-in symbols for something darker still remains a mystery to me.
I grew up in the Deep South where animals were treated like chattel: Bought, sold, traded, or discarded like farm implements or any other piece of property.
When Lindsey called me that fateful day asking me if I wanted a dog I should have never let my guard down.
Why I did is a question that still haunts me.