Herbie 

        Herbie was born in my best friend’s closet, a fact for which I am sure LeeAnn never forgave me.  I traveled a lot back then and the family dog Puddles was pregnant.  Never having had a pregnant pet before, I had no idea of the estimated date of her impending confinement, nor did I warn LeeAnn of such a possible event.

            Not only was LeeAnn my dog-sitter, she also cared for my young son Jeff.  She signed on for the job of childcare provider even before Jeff was born, and now he was five.  Both he and she were quite excited to show me the new puppies when I returned home.  There were four of them, all with black curly hair, which was distinctly unlike their short-haired dachshund mother.  Three of them had the appropriate short, little legs which would mark them as children of Puddles, but one had the long, furry limbs of a gazelle, even at birth.  This one was my son’s favorite, and we named him Herbie.

            Gathering my expanded little family into a towel-lined box, Jeff, Herbie, the rest of the crew and myself waved goodbye and drove across town.Homes were eventually foundfor Herbie’s three siblings, and Puddles was later killed through an unfortunate encounter with an auto backing out of a nearby driveway.  That left Herbie, Jeff, and me.

            I think I remember the night Herbie was conceived.  I was a single mom back then and Jeff and I owned a small duplex with both a fenced-in yard and a doggie door opening directly into our living room.  Puddles would come and go as she found necessary through the little door, into the Arctic entranceway where I had the big door propped open for her, and out into the fenced yard.  I have mentioned “fenced” now twice for a reason.  It was designed so Puddles could not get out and her neighborhood friends could not get in.

            So, one dark and dreary night, Puddles trotted through the little swinging door, and Jeff and I smiled, knowing she would return soon.  A hullabaloo erupts outside, disrupting our little mother-son evening together, with a WOOF and a howl and a scurrying little Puddles ramming the doggie door with her head as she rushed through the living room to hide in the bedroom she shared with Jeff.  We sensed something bigger outside.  Jeff and I ran to block the doggie door.  We found ourselves in the yard in time to see a dark shadow clear the top of our fence with a single bound.  As I now cuddled our new puppy, I realized The Shadow had been Herbie’s father.

            Herbie and Jeff were the classic dog and his young boy.  Herbie grew into the neighborhood rogue who happily ran along side Jeff who first rode down the alleyway on his bicycle and later on a small Yamaha dirt bike. They were a scruffy duo, patrolling together a two-block segment of the Turnagain neighborhood. Herbie’s self-determined assignment was to keep the area clear of marauding canines of various breeds and sizes, almost all bigger than himself.  But not faster.

            Sometimes the patrol would result in a skirmish, and Herbie would return heart a’ pounding, a patch of fur missing, and one day, an elegant hole punched in one ear, giving him the looks of a perfect pirate. While we were debating what kind of gold ring to get for his ear, Herbie came back after another battle with a notch, rather than the hole.  The gold ring idea was put aside.

            You might ask, “But what about the fenced yard? Wouldn’t that have been a good place to keep Herbie?”

            Well, yes.  But it’s hard to ride a bike in a fenced yard.  And well, it is hard to keep a Herbie in a fenced yard.  We would start the morning out that way, with Herbie in the yard and me driving down the alley headed for work.  Often as not, I’d glance back in the rearview mirror to see Herbie racing after me.  One time, it was Herbie followed by several, much larger dogs.  He had antagonized somebody, that’s for sure, but those long legs were keeping him ahead of the pack, at least for a while.

            I stopped the car and opened the door to let Herbie in, the idea being to shut the others out.  Not to be.  They had caught up and piled into my little hatch-backed Neon right behind Herbie.  Now I had four snarling, rough-housing dogs in my backseat. I popped the hatch, ran around and lifted the door, and out jumped three of them.  Herbie stayed, four feet planted firmly, barking insults at the retreating neighbors.

            Herbie was scruffy.  His coarse, curly hair would get matted, and scuffling first in the snow, then the mud, and then the dust ofAlaska seasons didn’t make it any better.  A bath just seemed to make it all worse.  So one day, when Jeff was about eight, I bundled Herbie up and took him to a doggie beauty parlor. 

            When I picked him up later that day, I had one humiliated pirate on my hands.  The professional groomers had shaved his matted hair, leaving a smooth, sleek body accentuating his athletic limbs; they had trimmed his beard giving him a somewhat intellectual look; plus and worse of all, they had fastened tiny ribbons to each ear.  Herbie could barely look at me, he was so embarrassed.  He even smelled nice.  On the way home, sitting in the front seat, he ducked down as we drove into the alley so that no dog would see him.

            What happened next was so sad, yet eventually pretty funny.  We arrived home to a waiting Jeff.  I opened the door, Herbie reluctantly jumped out, and young Jeff burst into tears.

            “I want my dog.  I don’t want this dog.  What happened to Herbie?” he cried.

            “Nothing happened to Herbie,” I cried back.  “This IS Herbie.  Herbie, come.”

            Herbie rushed to his boy and with a few jumps and licks convinced him of his true identity.  Reassured that he was still loved even after his makeover, Herbie was now happy and Jeff was, too.

~~

            When Jeff was about ten, a man came into our lives, a man who seemed to like both Jeff and dog, and who had children of his own.  A match was made and we prepared to leave the little duplex in Turnagain to move into a much bigger place inStuckagain Heights with lots of dirt roads on which to ride motorbikes and lots of acreage for a scruffy, long-legged Herbie to roam.

            Herbie loved Stuckagain.  We lived at the end of the road – almost.  Stuckagain Heights Restaurant, just up the road above our house, was managed by a Hungarian refugee who, along with his wife, had eighty-eight sled dogs staked out in little houses all around the property.  It seemed like eighty-eight anyway.  We liked having these dogs as neighbors, but the feeling was not necessarily mutual on the part of the musher neighbors.

            It seemed as though dogs, even sled dogs, go into heat.  And a Herbie becomes particularly excited about the possibilities that this presents, especially when there is a harem staked out just up the hill.

            The musher would scoop up Herbie and bring the wiggling Lothario home with a stern warning about keeping him clear of his dogs.

            We built a dog run.

            Herbie climbed the dog run.

            We put an extension on the dog run.

            Herbie dug under the dog run.

            We put rocks all along the perimeter of the dog run.

            Herbie ignored the rocks, perfected his climb, and wiggled through the wires we had strung across the top of the dog run. 

            Our neighbor brought him home again, this time saying he would either have to pay for Herbie to be neutered or shoot him.

            We opted to have Herbie neutered.  He went into a deep depression.

~~

            Years passed. Herbie’s attitude brightened with the addition of three step-children, two babies, a Boston terrier named Scout and a bassett hound named Lady.   The house rocked and Herbie rocked with it.

            No longer interested in sled dogs, Herbie discovered ravens, squirrels, and magpies.  The ravens, in particular, developed a craving for Herbie’s dog food which was served to him out on the deck. The dog would patiently eye the birds, then attack, sending food flying. The ravens scattered but soon would return, often dive bombing the waiting dog and pelting him with stones from above. We’ve kept the stones in a little bowl as proof of this unlikely story.

            As far as we know, Herbie never caught a bird, but he did graduate to harassing the moose and bear that ambled through our yard, coming home one afternoon with a hole in his side requiring veterinarian attention.  We never were sure if it was a dog bite, or a bear bite, but the injury did give Herbie a permanent stiff leg.

            Our dog was getting older now and moving a bit more slowly. His reasoning skills seemed to be slipping, too. Perhaps that is why he never really got the hang of porcupines, nor learned to give them the respect they demanded.

            Jeff was almost grown.  Herbie was pushing fifteen, pretty old for a scoundrel who had lived life as hard as Herbie.  He was getting stiff and sore, was deaf and certainly going blind.  His memory was excellent, however, if his dreams were any indication.  The aging dog would wake the house with howls and barks, his long legs kicking, definitely in pursuit of some canine comrade or massive moose from the misty past.   Spent with all the action, he would sigh, shift positions, and lay his head against Jeff’s pillow.

            Lady was now the crippled dog’s friend and close companion. The bassett hound would wake each morning, find her Herbie, gently nudge him, and walk beside him to his food and out the door to a sunny spot safe inside the dog run.  Lying close beside him for a few moments, she would leave and do what bassett hounds do to while away a day.  Come evening, though, she would return and nudge her friend.  Herbie would stand and stretch and follow her inside.

            On one such quiet, summer evening, Lady entered the sanctuary of the dog run, whined, and lay beside the aged rogue.  They stayed together for some time, until we came, and took Herbie away.

###

Writer Dianne O’Connell has lived inAlaska for forty-three years.  She and her husband Chuck have five children and five grandchildren and currently share their home with two terriers named Mac and Maggie.

Published in the November 2010 issue of:

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