If dogs run free, why not me
Across the swamp of time? – Bob Dylan
Several years ago, my late wife Judy Birdsong and I rented a car and crisscrossed Costa Rica on a combination surf safari and sight-seeing tour. Among my favorite spots was the surfing mecca Malpais located at the southeastern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific coast. The town itself hardly qualifies as a town, consisting of a handful of shops and small dwellings along an unpaved road running parallel to some of the most beautiful coastal scenery I’ve ever seen.
What really struck me about Malpais, however, wasn’t the stellar surf or the intricate rock formations that studded the beach, but it was just how happy everything around there seemed to be – the school children in their colorful uniforms smiling and skipping along the muddy road, the shopkeepers beaming from the doors of their humble establishments, the birds trilling somewhere out-of-sight. Even the dogs seemed to be grinning as they trotted to and fro unencumbered by fencing or leashes. The only discouraging sound to be heard was the dragon-like bellowing of howler monkeys looking askance from treetops.
A Facebook post from my former student Elizabeth Rowell Griffiths has awakened my memory of the happy pooches of Malpais. In her post, Elizabeth reminiscences about a couple of canines that ran free on the Porter-Gaud campus in the previous century, a golden retriever named Chief and a basset hound named Rufus. Rufus belonged to Berkeley Grimball, the headmaster, whose house was part of the campus, so it makes sense that Rufus might wander among the students of the Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools; however, I don’t remember to whom Chief belonged – maybe he lived in the Crescent, an upper end neighborhood adjacent to the campus.
What a charmed life these dogs led, beloved by scores of children who knew them by name, cooed to them, petted and scratched their heads. Elizabeth’s post elicited happy responses like “We loved those dogs” and “Those were our dogs.” Some fellow I don’t know added, “I never went to PG but I remember those dogs! We lived in Wappoo Heights.” So it seemed these free-range dogs enjoyed a rather large territory.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that my hometown of Summerville featured dogs that ran free in the less regulated ‘50s and ‘60s. My favorite was Ludie, a springer belonging to the Baldwin family who lived between South Main and Sumter Avenue. Ludie frequently visited James Spann Junior High and, like Chief and Rufus, enjoyed both fame and devotion. My friend Becky Baldwin tells me that Ludie was named after a bootlegger from Hell Hole Swamp. Even when Becky’s mama would lock him up to prevent him from following Becky to school, Ludie would head to Spann immediately after being let out later in the day. He was, I think, the first springer I’d ever seen and played a prominent role in Judy’s and my choosing springers as our first pets as a married couple. We eventually through carelessness bred Jack and Sally who produced two litters. In fact, we ended up selling one of the puppies to a family who lived in the Crescent. After the second litter, we had Sally fixed, which put an end to that. I have to say, though, those puppies sold like Chick-Filet sandwiches.
My boyhood dog, a black cocker named Bozo, also enjoyed freedom but rarely wandered outside our half acre. Perhaps “Beetle” (as in Beetle Bailey) would have been a more appropriate moniker given Bozo’s propensity to spend the vast majority of his days asleep under a tree.
I recall sadly that day when Bozo did wander off and we couldn’t find him for a few hours until our neighbors the Foxes informed us that they had discovered Bozo dead in their backyard.
Alas, for me, it’s sad that dogs’ abbreviated life spans mean that we get to know them both as puppy toddlers and stiff-legged geriatrics. In my adulthood, I have gone through the springers Jack and Sally, a golden retriever Bessie, a short-lived German longhaired pointer named Saisy (you can read her elegy here), and now KitKat, a chihuahua rat terrier mix who is two and has a very good chance of outliving me.
But I kind of hope not.