The mutual love of a boy and a dog
If prenatal stress has a lasting effect on the unborn, then that would explain any hang-ups Shorty and I had in later life. I was born in February 1942 and Shorty just a few months later. Thanks to Hitler and his Japanese allies, Pearl Harbor had struck fear and anxiety in the lives of most American mothers.
My temporary home was with my grandparents and Uncle Roy, my mother’s brother. Shorty was a redbone hound with a father who was part bloodhound. The bloodhound genes explained why Shorty was a little larger, a little darker red, soft velvet ears a little longer, and a sense of smell a little keener than most pure blood redbones.
Uncle Mac, my father’s brother, had given Shorty as a small pup to Uncle Roy. At this time, Uncle Roy was about nineteen-years-old, going to college and loved to hunt everything. However, just as Shorty and I passed our first birthdays, Uncle Roy got the letter that said, ‘Congratulations you have been selected. . .’ And off to war he went; just a boy who wanted to finish school and hunt the coons, squirrels, and rabbits that called rural Oklahoma home.
Before Roy left he asked Ma, my grandmother, to look after Shorty while he was away. Now I believe Ma’s love for her only son was exceeded by none other than perhaps God’s love. She took this task seriously and chained Shorty to the oak tree outside her bedroom window so she could keep a close eye on him. He had cool shade all day long from the hot Oklahoma summers, and his house was well packed with rags during the cold winters. No one was asked to feed and water Shorty; Ma had made a commitment, and that was her job. Though I was never neglected, I believe I would have been before Shorty was. Ma saw this as the tie to her son so far away and perhaps even her part of the war effort. She would ensure something special was waiting for Roy to come home to.
One late spring night the clouds turned dark in the northwest and the flashes of lightning and distant rumble of thunder warned of the coming storm. During that stormy night as lightning flashed through the spring sky and thunder instantly followed, you knew the storm was right on top of you. A violent bolt of lightning struck the oak tree Shorty was tethered to.
At daybreak Ma found Shorty lying motionless on the ground still alive, but unable to walk or even stand. Ma proceeded to give Shorty the care that probably most wounded G.I’s did not receive. Spoon-fed and nurtured for weeks, Shorty slowly began to recuperate. After about six weeks, he seemed back to normal with only one lasting effect. For the remainder of his long and mostly happy life, he became the best weather forecaster Oklahoma ever had. Hours before you even saw the clouds begin to form, Shorty would sense the coming storm. He would whine and sometimes howl, followed by searching out a hiding place. It might be under the porch or in the barn, but don’t try to move him or console him; it was impossible. We never needed radar or tornado sirens, we had Shorty!
Most hunting dogs are confined, but from that day forward, as long as he lived, he was never chained or pinned. As far as I know never even wore a collar.
As Shorty and I grew together our bond also grew - first as playmates and then as friends. Uncle Roy came home from war when I was about four-years-old. I believe I was jealous that now Shorty knew he no longer belonged to Ma or to me. He was Roy’s dog and hunted with Roy and his friends.
It would be another six years before Shorty and I could hunt together, but that didn’t stop me from holding his broad red head in both hands, peering into his beautiful brown eyes and letting him know how I felt about him.
At about ten years of age, I began to go hunting with Roy and Shorty. A unique quality Shorty had was he knew what we were hunting for. If it was a cold winter day and Uncle Roy carried a shotgun, Shorty hunted rabbits. If it was a clear, crisp fall afternoon and Uncle Roy or I was caring a 22-caliber rifle, Shorty hunted squirrels. If it was night and neither of us carried a gun, Shorty knew it was time to trail a raccoon. I can’t explain how Shorty knew this.
As I told you, Uncle Roy went to war as a young college boy, but he did not come back as he had left, at times bitter and a little more callous of heart. His innocence and energetic youth was lost in a mere three years. It also took a lot of his desire to kill the animals he had loved to hunt. He still took enough rabbit and squirrels to eat but never anymore, and more often he let me take the kill shot. At that time, I thought he was teaching me to hunt, but now I believe he had seen enough killing to last a lifetime.
Uncle Roy would take odd jobs to supplement the farm income and was busy much of the time. At about thirteen, Shorty and I began to hunt more and more alone. Now in my 70’s, I still love to hunt and be with a good dog; but for the past twenty years, I have become less interested in killing the animals and more intrigued by watching them. I realize Roy probably experienced this also and at an earlier age, prompted by his war experiences.
However, Shorty never lost his desire to hunt. In his old age, at fourteen, and I in my rambunctious youth of the same age, he developed almost crippling arthritis. He could still walk but with obvious pain.
In my desire to hunt, I would watch Shorty fall asleep by the back door in the sunshine that warmed his arthritic bones. I would grab the rifle and quietly sneak out the front door and over the hill to the creek and the huge cottonwood trees to find a squirrel or two. Inevitably, within two hours I would hear the deep-throated bark of Shorty on my trail. He would wake up and not finding me, circle the house until he picked up the scent of my trail and begin to track me down, as his grandfather bloodhound would have. When I heard that bark, I would gather up and head for the house, not wanting him to walk farther than necessary. When we met, the joy was still in his eyes, but I could see the pain also. We would slowly make our way home and at times I would carry him, but only for short distances, as he still weighed about eighty pounds.
It is now you are probably saying, “Did you not have enough sense to have the dog mercifully put down?” My response is this. Could you put down a loved one if they still only had that spark of joy in their eye? I believe at fourteen, I would have taken my own life before I would have put a bullet between those big, brown eyes that peered so deeply into mine.
The next August was hot and dry as Oklahoma Augusts almost always are. Roy was working off the farm at the time, and I had gone out to do some chores when my grandfather, Gramp, came to me and told me Shorty had passed away in the night. I decided not to wait for Roy to come home that evening but go ahead and bury Shorty, perhaps to save Roy from some extra grief.
The eternal resting place for Shorty’s worn out body was to be by a large woodpile about one hundred yards from the house. I tried to show no emotion as I carried the lifeless body to the spot I had selected. Gramp walked silently by my side. The grave was only a few inches deep when the realization hit me that I needed more than a shovel to penetrate the sun-baked Oklahoma clay. I took from the tool shed a Maddox and began to chip away at the stone-like soil. Gramp sat on the woodpile not leaving me alone, but seldom speaking as I toiled.
Surely with his age and wisdom, he understood my grief. As the sun beat down, the sweat poured off my face. This was a relief to me, as I could now let the tears of sorrow pour freely and silently, and Gramp could not tell the sweat from the tears.
After the job was done, Gramp placed his hand on my shoulder as we walked back to the house. His only comments were ‘it was time for him to go’ and ‘he is better off now.’ And I knew this was true.
When Uncle Roy arrived home and was told of Shorty’s demise, I showed him the grave. He demonstrated no emotion. My how tough we all were – Ma who had nursed Shorty back to health during the war, Gramp who loved Shorty and had to break the news to Roy and me, Roy who had spent so many hours on happy hunts with Shorty, and me who had grown up with Shorty – starting life together as infants, but as is the plan of life, one becoming old as the other entered his prime.
Roy never owned another hunting dog and rarely hunted with me after that. Myself, I had many dogs. All were good dogs in their special way, but no dog ever replaces another. I wish once more I could hold that broad red head in my two hands, peer into those huge, brown eyes and tell Shorty how much he meant to me.
I have written what might seem to be a sad story. But it is not. I have had to force myself to remember the details of the day Shorty passed. For when I think of this treasured dog, my thoughts turn first to the happy, carefree days of my youth that I shared with my dear pal, Shorty.
Dedicated to the memories of Shorty, 1942 – 1957, and Uncle Roy, 1920 – 1985.