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Dog Days Of Duke — Another Place In Time

July 28th, 2019 · Tags:Uncategorized

When my children were young, we had a tradition of my telling the three city kids about the old ways — fun family history from many miles away — “Farm Stories.” The kids loved the stories, or maybe it was just one more ploy to get to stay awake a little bit later. I never told this one, or certainly not in its entirety. It’s the story of ol’ Duke.

Duke was from a different era. A farm dog, in the truest sense of the word. Duke was loved, but never pampered. His toenails were a la natural🙂 He knew he was a dog and not a human … and Duke was good with that. He seemed to understand that he needed to pull his weight to be justified on the team. Duke never saw a vet, yet was healthy until his final years. His shots were not current, but he had them a few times thanks to the vocational agriculture program in lieu of a small-animal vet. He wouldn’t dream of being “fixed.”

With Duke’s combination of bloodlines, he would grow into roles as both a protector and an instinctive herder. I first saw Duke’s protective side when — as barely more than a pup — he fiercely growled, barked and snapped at my cousin … when it only seemed as if there was an issue.

I am pretty sure Duke would take on any and all comers — any one and any size — if anyone raised a hand toward me or my sweet sister, or any of us kids. Duke probably learned the hard way that his job description would also include being a protector of our chickens … but he also learned, they were “forbidden fruit” despite the grizzly actions of of his cousins — raiding coyotes, if they ever caught a bird left out of the coop at night.

The only thing that scared Duke was was the firearm — for his entire life, as far as I know.

When I first met Duke and my dad started to train him as a cowdog, we had a maroon ’64 Chevy stepside pickup. It wasn’t very long before Duke could jump up, first on to the built-in step of that Chevy, and then on up and over to clear the metal sides of the truck bed … easily.

Duke loved to ride in the back of the pickup, head and neck preening to the side of the cab, to get the full cooling effect of the dry Panhandle wind as we drove down the dusty trails between green fields of wheat pasture and yellowy-grey maize stubble. He lived to ride in the back!

When we upgraded to a ’72-or-so yellow and white Ford Ranger fleetside pickup truck, Duke’s leaping ability wasn’t challenged at all … By that time, just a quick “Get in the truck!” … and he was mid air, flying over the Ford’s sides … just as a thousand bales of hay did back in the day.

Duke could still hold his own and jump over the sides of our red, ’75-ish, four-wheel drive Chevy … even though it was taller than the pickups he cut his teeth on, so to speak.

Get in the truck!” … Always his favorite words.

There were only two things Duke liked as much as riding in the pickup — working cattle and plowing the fields. Duke was as smart as any cowdog I ever saw. My dad would give Duke a stern “sick ’em” and as soon as Duke heard the words, the dog was flying out of the truck, hitting the ground on the run. No lie … I knew Duke was smarter than me, especially when it came to cattle — and I moved a few head of cattle, by the time I was 10 — both on a horse and in a pickup loaded with hay as bait. Instinctively — probably the Collie half of his blood (also mixed with German Shepherd) — he knew where the cattle were supposed to be headed and he would convey that to the beasts with a quick nip at their heels and a bark or two. Duke was happy to work cattle, hours on end just for fun and little reward. But, when he got to chew on the recently removed horn, previously adorning a steer’s bellowing head … well that was a bonus.

Duke’s other conditioning exercise of choice was to follow the tractor out in the field when my dad, brothers, sister and/or I were out destroying the weeds that stole the moisture from our fields … us turning the unwanted plants over fast with a roaring engine, a cloud of smoke and a quick slash of a steel implement, to reveal the sometimes moist, dark and aromatic soil beneath. The smell of fresh dirt, tall green Johnson grass, blue weeds with their tiny, shriveled daisy-like blooms and the sickening-sweet perfume scent of the white, pink and yellow blooms dangling from the hollow stems of a devil’s claw plant. … Smells and memories that remain fresh for a lifetime.

It was hard work and it was beautiful too, in many ways.

Like our pickup trucks, our tractors got bigger and our methods more advanced. We started using more and more sweep plows and tandem discs and such. But Duke … he was a purest — or “old school” — you might say, when it came to plowing the fields. The farm dog preferred the already antiquated one-way plow. If you don’t know, a sweep plow and a tandem disc typically go back and forth and back and forth as they turn the weeds to barren ground. (Now of course, farmers conserve more moisture with no-till farming methods …)

But in the farmers’ world of driving tractor back then, pulling a one-way was sort of like the old joke about being a NASCAR driver. “Go to the end and turn left.” Pulling a one-way is hours and hours of circling the outer perimeter of the weeds — turning left — with each lap getting shorter and shorter and the dark brown, plowed-out “frame” growing bigger as you work your way to the center … the green interior diminishing … until you reach the middle of the field in a day or two, depending on the acreage.

Contrary to how a Hereford calf or an Angus steer would behave, I think Duke liked the predictability of the one-way plowing. I think he loved to let his mind wonder to the careless days of his youth, when my sister Cindy and I would push Duke in the old tire swing … or put a suit jacket on him, or turn his floppy ears inside out and change his name from Duke to “Whammos” because his ears were folded under … or laugh at him when he would roll around in the mud of the playa lake to cool off. I don’t know where it came from or why the “Whammos” nickname was a thing. But it is a cherished memory of good natured Duke.

But, yes … I think Duke could daydream about stuff like that following the one-way … he could follow with his eyes closed, because one of the other characteristics of the oneway is that the plow moves at a slight angle, as the tractor moves straight and one of the back wheels of the plow — the wheel nearest the center of the endless circle — cuts a distinct furrow in the ground, beside the freshly plowed soil. On the next revolution, the tractor driver puts the front wheel of the tractor in that furrow, from the previous lap around the field. It’s a way to mark the place, when driving. That way, the farmer doesn’t miss any ground or weeds, but also maximizes the reach of the plow … the plow only overlaps a tiny bit. It was that “mark” — that furrow — that helps to keep the plow in place … and from Duke’s perspective, the furrow also created a nice little smooth, level, cool path for his feet. He could have ran ahead of the tractor on unplowed ground, or anywhere else … but the furrow, with the topsoil freshly dug away was much cooler and easier on Duke’s pads. Now, in the event that a fun lizard or tasty rabbit or something else hopped out of the plow’s path, that would be a bonus.

Duke was happy to follow that one-way hours at a time.

My dad was Duke’s favorite person in the world, except for us kids. I mentioned that Duke snapped at some of my cousins when he thought teasing or other shenanigans were going to somehow harm me. But also, there is a family story — that I might not should tell — about one of the siblings returning home past curfew. Upset and concerned, my dad had some heated words for the rebellious youth, late one night out in front of the farm house. Apparently Duke mistook heated, parental advice for something else, and he jumped between father and son, taking a bite out of my dad’s thigh. Those were the days of “monkey blood” or mercurochrome — the bright orange miracle cure for all cuts and nicks and punctures. I saw the bites as Dad covered them in orange.

Whenever there was the much-beloved rain, and by chance some vehicle became stuck in the seldom-seen mud, Duke would position himself near the muddy vehicle and then if the back wheels began to spin, he would bark at the tire, just as if it were encouraging a heifer who had lost her way. So funny! Tractor tires, pickup tires, car tires … Duke “herded” all of them out of the mud.

Duke didn’t like dog food, but he loved table scraps (in addition to an occasional rabbit without the stew). Thee was an ample supply, because all farm boys learn gun safety and then marksmanship … or at least they did when I was a kid. And we were taught there was no killing without a reason. Shooting a rabbit for Duke was totally acceptable and justified. He loved it … but bless his heart, like the guy who needs an antacid after satisfying a pizza craving … Duke usually paid his dues after enjoying a nice fresh rabbit, who had unfortunately wondered into the wrong wheatfield. But Duke never stopped loving “wabbit.” And he never stopped hating the gun that made the dish possible.

Anytime a gun was pulled from a pickup, or taken from the farmhouse … for whatever reason, Duke would kowtow instantly and as fast as he could — tail between his legs — he would hide and not come out from under the wooden shelves or the workbench in the back of the old ramshackle garage. He would hunker down, long before the first report from any weapon fired. He was so smart. He new the smell of gunpowder and the noise and the results. He was petrified … until the weapons were put away.

Somewhere between the red Chevy four-wheel drive pickup and its successor, a brand new white four-wheel drive Chevy originally intended to be a public utility work truck, Duke “lost a step.” He never stopped riding in the back of the truck, but slowly, his ability to get on board was fading.

Toward the end of the red Chevy 4-wheel drive’s time in our family, time was catching up with old Duke too. He wouldn’t admit it though. He would try to jump in the truck when he knew we were headed to work in the fields … but it was no longer graceful. He would jump and scratch the sides and claw at the metal and pull his weight on over the side of the truck — kind of like an infantryman training to climb over the wall in “basic” … Duke’s face would look as if he was embarrassed, and knew it was awkward, but then when he was safely inside the truck, his face beamed with happiness.

We loved to see his sense of accomplishment when he struggled but then achieved his goal of riding in the back of the pickup … still hopping up on the tool box across the back, or propping his front paws over the side of the bed to look outside …

But, Duke … it was time to face reality:(

In addition to me stepping out of the pickup truck and opening the barbed wired gates, when my dad drove us up to the tractor parked in the field, I took on the new task of having to let down the tailgate for Duke.

Get in the truck!

The first few times that I helped him, he looked at me questioningly … “You serious?” … as if to say.

In about ’72 something changed Duke’s life forever — a huge wheat crop — for our farm and pretty much everyone in the area. After so many years in a tiny, rundown farm house, our family bought a nice house in Vega. Texas … and moved to town. (I became known as “the city kid” to my brothers.) We knew Duke would never adjust, even to a small town lot with a fence, after having more than a thousand acres of ours to call his own — not to mention the adjoining, uninhabited farms — for the first dozen or so years of his life. So, the decision was made to allow Duke to continue the peaceful, carefree life on the farm that he loved, knowing we would see him every day, just as we had before. He would lack for nothing. But, his best friend, and smaller peer — a housedog named Snoopy — made the move to town … and sadly it was Snoopy who would be poisoned for roaming the neighborhood as other dogs did in the tiny town. (It was rumored that a very close neighbor was putting out poison … and we found it to be true the hard way.) Snoopy lasted just a few short months in town and Duke continue on several years at the old homestead … Increasingly happier and happier to see us every time we drove the seven miles to the farm, fed him and loaded him up for field work.

“Batchelor life” in the country was wonderful for Duke, even as the effects of age continued to slow him and his system.

Then one day, we arrived at the farm to find Duke limping badly— more like hopping on three legs — with blood oozing from a bullet hole in his leg. Someone shot Duke while we were away. Duke’s only “crime” — his yellowish brown coat and his size probably resembled a coyote to some passerby in the remote, unpopulated area of the county. At least we hoped it was a case of mistaken identity and not just pure meanness.

Duke survived, but he was never the same again. He hobbled for the rest of his life and didn’t eat as well and his health and weight continued to decline. I have no doubt, despite the limitations of his farm dog existence, he would have eventually have died of old age … if some idiot had not put a bullet in his leg.

Duke had lived in a different world from our animals today, so when my dad faced the inevitable — that Duke had “had enough” — the time came for a merciful ending. I don’t think I had ever seen my father so miserably sad as when he saw there was no choice but to put ol’ Duke down. Duke had been the best cowdog ever and a wonderful daily companion to my dad for so many years. They had raised a pack of kids and a few thousand cattle together. Accordingly, my dad reached the decision that he wouldn’t let just anyone — some stranger — end Duke’s life. I can’t imagine how difficult the decision must have been for Daddy.

Like I said, it was a different time … a totally different era … and things were done differently back then. And, anyone who has ever lived on or been around a farm knows the animals are loved and highly respected and well treated … but subject to different things than their city cousins. Duke’s last time would not be like that of a city dog, or any dog nowadays.

My dad made the perfect plan, thinking it through and through for days. He knew that potentially, Duke would run away and hide as best he could, if he ever spotted or smelled the gun. That could not happen. So, when my dad drove out to the farm on that day, he had a small rifle loaded and ready in the pickup floorboard beside him. When he got to the farm, my dad stopped and unlocked the gate, and Duke hobbled out to greet my dad, as he always did. My dad placed Duke’s meal on the ground by the gate. It was an extra portion of table scraps, served in a used plastic milk jug with the top cut away to allow the dog to eat all he wanted, easily. This day, the scraps included an extra serving of everything … and an especially large piece of a juicy steak. As Duke enjoyed the meal — living what had been his best life and enjoying his favorite — my dad climbed back in the truck as he sometimes did on a short visit. Duke’s face was buried deep in the plastic container, chewing and gulping down meat and chomping on a small bone. Slowly and silently, my dad reached for the rifle and turned the barrel toward the door, still concealing what was about to happen. Slowly, my dad eased the rifle to the top of the door, poking the dark barrel through the open window, still partially hidden by the large side mirror of the truck. Duke was only a few feet from the door, so however dreadful, this would be a quick, painless end.

My dad readied the gun, took aim and cocked the gun.

For a fraction of a second, I am sure that all of the wonderful years of work and companionship all flashed through my father’s mind. And in that millisecond just before my dad pulled the trigger … Duke stopped eating and looked my dad right in the eye … and then he fell over dead.

When my dad told me about this day, it was the only time I ever saw him cry.

 

Know what I’m sayin?