Saturday, March 10, 2007

Walkie Poos

While stationed at RAF Bentwaters, U.K. 1970 to 1975, we lived on The Street Farm, Saxmundham, Suffolk. Marilynn was very active in the Officer Wife’s Club, and one of her friends was Ida, the wife of LtCol Bill Juhrs, our Base’s elderly Safety Officer. In the early spring of 1972, the Vice Wing Commander and his wife gave them a puppy. They loved the puppy, and Bill took it with him all day in his pickup as he made his safety rounds, but the puppy was too active for them to care for and exercise in their small house and yard on base, so they sadly gave it to Marilynn.

Dilly on The Street Farm, Saxmundham, U.K. 1972

When we got Dilly, she had already left most of her puppy days behind. She was still playful, but also well trained, and never gave us any puppy problems such as messing in the house, or chewing on things.

Dilly was a wonderful dog for our family. She was medium size, short black hair with white patches and tummy, long legs and body, deep chest, small waist, about 35 pounds, loved to play with me and our three sons, was a fast, tireless runner, and was never heard to bark. She whined softly once, when I accidentally stepped on her paw, so I knew she wasn’t mute, but besides that she was silent.

She had been named for the couple that originally gave her as a present, Richard and Phyllis = Dick and Philly = Dilly.

Jeffrey and Dilly after a busy day on The Street Farm

Dilly was a perfect dog for farm life. The Street Farm was surrounded by fields for running, and the wheat and barley fields, which the British called “corn,” contained many hare for her to chase.

One rainy afternoon I took Dilly for a walk in the fields, and just after we passed the last farm building, a hare dashed across the recently plowed field. Dilly was off after the hare in an instant, and was gaining on it rapidly when the hare made a sharp left turn back towards the farm buildings. In my mind’s eye I can still see Dilly suddenly turning left as hard as she could. She had been running much faster than the hare, and it was difficult to change direction at high speed on the wet, plowed earth. Her body was almost parallel to the ground, her legs churning, her tail lashing like a whip to steady her balance as she turned and slid, and was suddenly running at full speed again and gaining on the hare as her body coiled and uncoiled with each bounding stride.

I still get tears in my eyes thinking about it. Dilly running at full speed across that field was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

The hare darted into another sharp turn, and Dilly slid – turned - clawed her way after it again. And again. And again, and just when I thought the hare “was a goner,” it reached the safety of the thick brush beside a small farm pond.

If Dilly was disappointed, it never showed. She sniffed a bit, then pranced happily back to me with what I was sure was a doggy smile.

Dilly knew how to relax

One of the many characters on British television was a woman who had a show on dog training, and one of her catch phrases was “walkies,” to signal a dog it was time for its walk. Marilynn and the boys quickly taught Dilly that that was the eagerly awaited signal for me to take her on her evening walk. Since one of the purposes of the evening walk was also to give Dilly an opportunity to “poo,” the signal quickly became, “Dilly! Walkie poos!”

That was all Dilly needed to hear to race to the door and start a hopping, tail wagging dance while waiting for me to get the leash and let her out.

Safe sunning and dignity go together

Our wonderful five years in England ended all too soon, and we set off in February of 1975 for Scott AFB near Belleville, Illinois. One of the last things I did before we left England was to deliver Dilly to a kennel that would care for her for a month, and then ship her via air cargo to Lambert Field in Saint Louis.

Bruce and Jeff love Dilly

We soon found and bought a nice house on the south side of Belleville, and Dilly made herself at home. As with most homes in Illinois, ours was only a block from a cornfield. Dilly may have been disappointed there weren’t as many hare, but probably she felt the number of feral cats abounding more than made up for the lack of hare.

The thing Dilly liked most about Illinois was the snow, and what she liked most about snow was snowstorms. During the winter it was already dark when I got home from work at Scott AFB. We usually had dinner at about six, then I would settle back to read the newspaper. However, this bucolic, relaxing scene never was destined to last long if a storm was blowing through. If the wind was howling, the snow blowing, the boys knew it was time to announce: “Dilly! Walkie poos!”

Dilly would run to the door, both body and tail wagging vigorously, looking at the door, looking at me, looking back at the door, almost beside herself in eager anticipation. I put on my sweater, thick parka, thick socks, felt insulated snowmobile boots, snowmobile mittens (very handy, even if, like me, you have never ridden on a snowmobile), and wrapped a scarf around my neck. Finally I got a flashlight, and Dilly’s leash, and opened the door.

Dilly would dash out the door, leap over the bushes by the porch, race across the snow-covered lawn, cross the street, and into the cornfield. I would plod along behind, the Incredible Bulk, hardly recognizable as human under thirty pounds of cold-weather gear and wishing I had more.

In the meantime, Dilly would be gloriously running, bounding, sliding through the snow covered cornfield. The stronger the wind, the heavier the snowfall, the entire better to Dilly. We never had a blizzard in our four Illinois winters, according to my Illini neighbors, although I thought they must draw the dividing line between a snow storm and a blizzard awfully high.

We left Scott AFB and Illinois for Hickam AFB and Hawaii in the summer of 1978. Marilynn had just had a mastectomy for breast cancer, leaving her with an eight-inch open incision where a breast had been. With our two youngest sons, Scott and Jeffrey, she went back to California by plane to stay at her parent’s home in Vallejo. I loaded a rental truck with all the things we didn’t ship to Hawaii, attached our red VW station wagon with a bumper hitch, and set off with Dilly as my companion. My mother-in-law, Priscilla, drove our 1974 Jaguar XJ6 (a memento of England) with our oldest son, Bruce, for companionship.

Along the way we stopped briefly in Bellevue, Nebraska, to load some household items that Marilynn’s recently divorced sister Deanna wanted from the house where her ex-husband, an Air Force officer, still lived while working at Offut AFB.

When we arrived in California I immediately put Dilly on a flight for Honolulu, where she was transported to the Animal Quarantine Station in Halawa Valley to be held for 120 days to prevent rabies from being introduced in Hawaii.

Dilly had already been in quarantine for 30 days when we arrived in Hawaii, with 90 days to go. This started one of the most heart-warming, heart aching periods I have ever experienced with a pet.

We would visit Dilly at Halawa about once a week, and Marilynn and the boys insisted I go in her cage first. The reason was than she was so overjoyed at seeing us, she would jump all over almost uncontrollably for several minutes, wagging her whole body, paws on my chest, licking me, finally settling down to let me pet her quietly and rub her tummy.

When she had calmed enough, Marilynn and the boys came in to join us, and Dilly made the rounds of greeting each and letting each know how much she loved and missed them.

Then it would be time to leave, and she would watch us intently, tail still wagging constantly, and then we would be out of sight. I would imagine her sitting there, silently watching, waiting for us to come back.

September 1978 finally arrived, and Dilly was finally free to come home with us to our townhouse on Fox Boulevard, Hickam AFB. It was small, three bedrooms on two floors, about 900 square feet, but it was comfortable and airy. One of the good features was a fenced back yard, small, but a nice area for Dilly to relax and stretch.

Her big event each day was still the evening “walkie poos.” After sundown, Dilly and I would walk about a block, past the tennis courts and baseball diamonds, past the base library, to the big lawn lined with cocoanut palms surrounding the Base Headquarters building. I would let Dilly off the leash, and she would trot over towards the bushes next to Headquarters.

The big attraction for Dilly was the feral cats that the ladies working at Headquarters put out food for every day. The cats would prowl around the building each evening, and Dilly would search for one to chase. As soon as she spotted one, the chase was on!

Since Dilly never gave a warning bark, the first sign of danger the cat would notice was a flash of white fur on the chest of a hard-charging black dog.

The cat would bolt towards the safety of the bushes around the building, with Dilly in hot pursuit. Not only did the bushes give the cats sanctuary, but there were also holes in the vents that the small cats could dive through to get away under the building, that were much to small for Dilly to follow behind.

On our usual half-hour “walk,” Dilly would usually get to chase three or four cats. She would bowl over a cat now and then, but I never saw her bite one (or be bitten). It seemed harmless - fun and exercise for Dilly, and a break in boredom for the cats.

When the Air Force gave me a humanitarian reassignment to Travis AFB in 1982, to be near Marilynn’s family in Vallejo for help and support during her cancer treatment, we picked up a new addition to our family just before we left Hawaii.

Our eldest son Bruce was given a little black kitten he named Ash for a “graduation” present from one of his classmates at Radford High School. We sent Dilly on a cargo flight back to California, and I carried Ash on the plane back in a little basket I held on my lap or set on the aircraft floor between my feet.

It didn’t take Ash and Dilly long to become good friends and play together. Dilly would jab her nose at Ash (now usually called by her nickname “Ashley”), and Ashley would sit up and jab with her forepaws like a boxer. Then they would curl up and sleep together.

The family considered Dilly to be my dog because she seemed to be next to me most of the time. Ashley was Bruce’s, and Marilynn said she would like a pet of her own. We found an ad for kittens in San Francisco, and Marilynn fell in love with a lively little white one she named “Dusty.”

Dusty and Ashley both got along wonderfully with Dilly, although they didn’t seem to care for each other at all.

When Ashley wanted some excitement, she would pounce on Dilly in our living room, and then race away down the hall towards the rear bedroom with Dilly in pursuit. As often as not, Dilly would soon race back into the living room with little Ashley in pursuit. They would fly over and across the couch, jab at each other a few times in the middle of the living room, then the pursuer would again become the pursued, and switch, then switch again.

Surprisingly, with all the mad running and rough play fighting, I never saw or heard any anger or injury, and nothing was damaged or broken.

Besides not barking, we had never seen Dilly swim, so one day the boys gently carried her into the swimming pool and released her. Without kicking, splashing, or any other motion, she sank slowly in about four feet of water and stood on the pool bottom looking up at me. I jumped in and pulled her up to the surface, then set her back on the pool deck. At no point did she show any sign of distress, nor any sign that she would ever try to swim.

About a year later, about the time of her fourteenth birthday, it seemed she became weak and feeble almost overnight. I took her to the veterinarian, and he said she wasn’t sick, just old, would probably die soon, and that there was nothing that could be done to make her get better.

I took her back home, but she was so weak she couldn’t go out for “walkie poos” anymore, and she looked very distressed as she had an accident on the floor for the first time in her life.

Marilynn and the boys said goodbye to her, and I took her to the vet to be euthanized. I wanted to be with her when she was put down, to have her head on my lap and be petting her, but the vet didn’t allow it, so I gave her some last pats and rubs and left quietly.

I don’t remember driving home.

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