Thursday, August 7, 2008


I remember the day I took this picture. I was 12 1/2 years old, and Peanuts was 3. The picture was developed in April 1958, but it was taken in March, on the first day we could go outside after a major snowstorm had closed everything down in Falls Church. We'd had no power for a week. It got so cold we could see our breaths in the house if we weren't in front of the fireplace, and we had to take perishable food out of the freezer and put it on the side porch to stay properly chilled. On this first bright day, Peanuts was warming himself in the sun on the front porch, trying to muster up a dignified look for the camera but mostly looking just comfortable and slightly dopey. When I think of Peanuts, he has that look on his face.

Nineteen fifty-eight was long before the days of near-universal obedience training for animals and daily walks on leashes. Dog ownership was not yet a cult. As much as my mother liked Peanuts, I'm sure the only reason she agreed to owning such a large dog was that he could be outside on his own most of the time and not constantly underfoot in the house, shedding fur all over it. The expectations placed on Peanuts and all the other dogs in the neighborhood were pretty much the same as those on us kids: we should spend most of our time outdoors playing with our friends, but stay close enough to home to hear when we were being called. Peanuts's main pals were Archie, a purebred springer spaniel, and Major, a lumberingly overweight black lab. You could watch as the three of them met up in the morning and jaunted off somewhere to do dog things--including, I fear, making little Archies, Majors, and Peanutses, since neutering in those days was not a required condition for pet ownership. Even in those fairly "modern" days, we still felt a bit closer to nature than we do now. Many of our parents were just a generation or two off the farm. When we first moved to our neighborhood, we had the modern convenience of trash and garbage pickup, but it was by an ancient man named Henry who did the job from a wagon as old as he was, drawn by two horses, Salt and Pepper. The unquestioned assumption was that animals would be animals and they had to live mostly outside for nature to take its course, nature being thought of as, if not benign, then uncontrollable by the average human and best simply worked around.

Peanuts wasn't a completely untrained slob of a dog, of course. He could "shake," and "roll over," and at the command, "box," he would automatically get up from wherever he was and go to the basement, where there was a box with a blanket in that was all his. (We'd think of it as his "kennel" now, although it had no wires or doors.) And as you can tell just from his looks, he had his goofy charms--he was a loveable dog. But he was a dog and he did do dog things.

He hated motorcycles and was virtually uncontrollable if one should churn its way down our street, Meadow Lane. One morning he and I were sitting together on that same front porch when the peace was broken by a loud chopper racing down the hill of othe street. Peanuts became an unknown creature. It was all I could do to hold him in place by the collar as he struggled to protect hearth and home from the loud intruder. And there was a time or two when we did learn where his wanderings took him and would rather not have known. There were twin girls across the street who went to Falls Church High, which was a 10-minute stroll up the road. We learned much later that Peanuts regularly walked with them to school and went right in with them. The twins thought this was all great fun but the school, naturally, had a different take.

Peanuts was capable of acts that were both unbelievably brave and stupid at the same time. There was a pony ring in a park about five miles from our house, the route to which was a heavily traveled artery that had cars speeding past each other in both directions. My parents decided to take me there one, and only one, time. When we were halfway to the ring, in the midst of the fast-moving traffic, my father looked in the rear-view mirror and cursed. There was Peanuts, running his heart out between the speeding cars, trying to catch us! I shake my head the sight of it to this day. We had no choice but to stop on the side of the road, wait for Peanuts to catch up with us, and take him back home. As far as Peanuts was concerned, he had accomplished an important mission and was all joyful greetings as he hopped in the car. He didn't understand the recriminations piled on him at that moment or, more likely, ignored them. For me it was a pony ride that ended before it even began.

It was clearly just a matter of time before Peanuts would get into real trouble because of his wayward nature. It was more than mere trouble, though: it was the inevitable fatal injury. One late fall afternoon in 1960, a stranger knocked on our door and asked if we owned a big brown dog. When we said we did, he told us we needed to get him, up at the top of the Meadow Lane hill. Peanuts had been hit by a truck as he headed home for the night. By the time we got to him, he was already gone, lying on the grass at the side of the road. It looked like he was trying to get home but couldn't finish the trip. We loaded him into the car--I remember being amazed at his weight--and helped him finish his journey. Peanuts was loved in the neighborhood, and my father decided he deserved a funeral. The neighbors came to pay their last respects and sadly watched as Peanuts was laid to rest under the apple tree in our back yard. I suppose the ceremony was meant partly as a learning experience for us kids, but there wasn't a dry eye in the crowd, no matter the purpose of the occasion.

Could we have done better by Peanuts? Could we have given him a longer life by curbing his wanderlust, neutering him, taking him to obedience school? Yes, there's no question about it. But those things just weren't done in the 1950s. Dogs were still creatures of nature who had their rightful, honored place in the world, as honest-to-God dogs. They were not yet designer organisms created to be more convenient for people. Peanuts's life may have been too short, but there is no doubt in my mind that he enjoyed every moment of the time that he did have, just as, in spite of all the trouble he caused us--and maybe even because of it--we enjoyed every moment of his time with us.


Mim said...

That cat of yours at the top of yesterday's post is quite a beauty.
And all of your cat stories.. oh my.
I have lots of cat stories and will have to tell ours someday.
Our current cat Pscyho, yes all black, is almost 18 and still going strong.
And I liked your Peanuts story and how he was named. So cute.

Ralph said...

Thanks, Mim. "Psycho." Perfect name for a cat. Would love to read a story about how he got the name!

Kat said...

I am a cat person, and I am a dog person. My two cats are quite content living with the dog though each approaches the dog in a different way. Maddie runs though she'll share the floor with the dog if treats are involved. Fern keeps the dog under her paw which makes me laugh as she'll run from side to side on the bed to keep Gracie at bay. I know yous are too old to adjust, but a time may come for both.

Ralph said...

You're right, of course, Kat. Then the problem will be, "who can take care of the animals when we want to take a trip?" Frank and Rick won't be with us in Delaware. Guess that'll be a bridge to cross when the time comes.

Eclecticity said...

Wonderful recollections Ralph! Thanks!