Tag Archives: Huck

The Day I Learned Why Dogs Howl

Today I remembered one rainy Saturday a few years ago when I was heading to a funeral but needed to bury Richard M. Nixon in my backyard before my toddler found out she was dead.

That’s a lot in one sentence. Let me explain.

My late husband, Richard, left me many things, but the most precious was a long-haired tortoise shell kitty cat. Her name was Nixon. Richard Milhouse Nixon, to be precise.

For a long while after he first adopted her from the shelter, he never really gave her a name–just called her Cat. He was going out of town and his neighbor agreed to keep an eye on Cat. When she asked the cat’s name, she was disappointed to hear that the cat didn’t have one. She picked at Richard about it. Because his friend was super liberal, and he was a smart ass, he said, “Fine. The cat’s name is Richard Milhouse Nixon. Please be sure to say, “I love you, Nixon” every time you snuggle her.”

He adored that cat. She helped him get “in” with my family because you know how some families ask, “Do you go to church?” or “How do you vote?”…my family asks, “Do you have any pets?” You can’t hang with the Garretts if you don’t have some shedders in the house.

This is Nixon giving my dog Katie the stink eye for being on the dog bed.

This is Nixon giving my dog Katie the stink eye for being on the dog bed.

Nixon lived for several years after Richard died, but eventually she got narrow in the hips and her gums didn’t look so healthy and her bags of groceries disappeared (that’s what Daddy called those sags of flab under a fat kitty’s belly). Nixon declined quickly. She died in her sleep and I found her one rainy Saturday morning curled up near the fireplace.

I was already feeling blue that morning because it was the day Athens would say goodbye to Randy Bewley, a musician, artist, father to two boys, and beloved of my friend, Robin. Randy had died very suddenly and it had been a sad sad week. And now Nixon was dead on my hearth and Vivi was due to wake up any minute. Crap.

I wrapped Nixon in one of Richard’s old bath towels, one that still had his name tag sewn on it from summer camp, then hid her in our bedroom. I whispered to G that I needed him to get Vivi out of the house so I could bury the cat without having to explain it all to her. He bundled her into some warm clothes and they headed out for pancakes.

It was pouring cold rain. I put on the purple raincoat that I had worn on all of those European adventures with Richard then I clutched his poor dead cat to my chest. After a quick stop in the tool shed for a shovel, I made my way down the hill to the beech tree beside the river–site of our pet cemetery. Huckleberry Finn, my big white Greater Pike Hound, walked at my side. I couldn’t keep an eye on him and focus on digging a cat grave, so I locked Huck inside the fence. He sat on his haunches to watch what I was doing.

Huck o' my Heart

Huck o’ my Heart

Well. I started digging a hole and the deeper I dug, the sadder I got. Nixon had Richard’s heart, just like I had once. She was the something he had loved and I had loved. She was part of our little family and now that last link with him was gone. I settled her light body into the earth. I ripped up a few pieces of English ivy from the riverbank and wove them into a heart shape that I placed in the grave with her.

It was time to say a few words. There in the streaming rain, I thanked her for being a sweet and faithful kitty. I told her how much he had loved her and how when he had to be away from her those last few months, I recorded five minutes of her purring and he would lie in his hospital bed and listen to it when he felt afraid. I told her that I was sorry she didn’t get more time with him.

And then I sat in the rain on my haunches and I sobbed. I wailed. I keened. I didn’t worry about any of the neighbors hearing me. I didn’t worry about whether I looked crazy or not. I didn’t care. I cried as hard as I could. For Nixon, for Richard, for Randy, for Robin, for myself. For the whole damn sad world that seemed to be crying along with me.

Then from behind me, I heard a plaintive sound I had never heard before, like a harmony to my grief. It was Huck, still waiting for me in the rain. He threw his head back and howled at the gray sky. Three long slow howls, like a wolf under a full moon. I had never heard him make such a sound and he’s never done it since.

His howling startled me out of my own fit. Our eyes met through the fence. He stood up and wagged his tail slowly at me with a look on his face that seemed to say, “Are we done? Or once more?” I couldn’t help but laugh and something in my tired heart cracked open with the wonder of his howl. Such a wild animal thing, such a mystery, right here in my backyard. I told Nixon goodbye one more time, filled in the grave, then walked back up the hill with my dog right by my side.

So why do dogs howl? I looked it up. It’s not because they are sad. According to Cesar Milan, dogs–and wolves–howl to tell a lost member of the pack where they are. A wolf who has wandered too far will howl to say, “Ummm…you guys? I’m out here alone” and another wolf howls in response to say, “You’re OK. Come over this way.”

I think that’s exactly what Huck was telling me that day. He heard a member of his pack howl because she was afraid and feeling lost, so he howled to say, “Over here. You’re not alone.”

My dad died yesterday. He spent his life tending to the little creatures of this world, the raggedy abandoned dogs like Huck and the pampered kitties like Nixon. One of my friends reminded me that all dogs go to heaven, and I laughed to think about how busy Dr. Garrett will be saying hello to thousands of old friends.

A Real Dog, All Day Long

Sunday morning, I sat on the edge of Vivi’s bed to wake her up.

“Hey, Vivi!  Today’s Cowtail Day.  You get to learn how to shoot your new bow!”

"Could you get these kids in their seats so WE CAN GO?"

“Could you get these kids in their seats so WE CAN GO?”

Her eyes flew open and she chirped, “Huck gets to be a REAL DOG…all day long!”  She threw back her covers to reveal some ratty blue sweats with a hole in the knee and an old t-shirt from Brasil.  “I slept in this so I could wear it to Cowtail today!  I’m ready to go!”

Cowtail is our family’s hunting camp–100 acres of forest land that has been in my grandfather’s family for over a hundred years.  When I say “hunting camp,” I am not being coy.  I once overheard my stepdaughter telling one of her friends that we were “going to Ashley’s family ranch for the weekend” and I corrected her by saying, “Ranch?  Sweetie, it’s some woods with a shack and an outhouse.  Let’s not blow things out of proportion.”

Keeping an eye on his babies.

Keeping an eye on his babies.

For decades, the land was leased to some strangers for the hunting rights.  Then it dawned on the six of us cousins, Pop’s grandchildren, that we could pay the taxes ourselves and keep the place in the family.  But the real reason is that Cowtail gives us a place to get our kids dirty.  Our kids are growing up on cul de sacs in tidy little neighborhoods.  That is NOT the way we grew up.  I still remember the Christmas when we got machetes (and a casual admonition to “be careful”) for playing in the woods.  We’d build a fort one weekend in the pine woods around our house then by the next weekend forget where it was and build another one.  Our same pack of six cousins rode our bikes miles into town, wandered around the cow pastures in search of arrowheads or built a dam over the creek just for something to do.  My mom says I called dams “water makin’ machines.”

Now we’re all polished up and living in The City.  Our dogs take baths, wear collars and mind their manners.  At home, Huck has a nice yard but he has to peek out at the rest of the world through a hole in the fence.  He’s only allowed to woof about five times in a row before he gets called back into the house.   There’s a fence between him and the river.



Huck loves going to Cowtail.  For the first 10 minutes of our car trip, we kept hearing this strange sound like a church bell inside the car.  Turned out it was Huck’s happy tail thumping against Carlos’ little metal shovel.  We had to stop the car and rearrange the stuff to make the ding-dong stop.  At Cowtail, he gets to roam free.  He woofs at stuff.  He chases squealing kids on four-wheelers down the muddy trails, never losing sight of them.  He eats a lot of sandwiches and cookies that drop from little hands.  His coat gets pieces of roasted marshmallow stuck in it when the kids use him like a napkin.  He wanders across the archery range and eight kids yell, “Hu-uck!” in unison.  He gets to be a real dog, all day long.

In the last five years, the boy cousins have made some serious improvements to the shack at Cowtail.  It’s got windows and a rain barrel shower and built-in bunks.  They called in a couple of favors and got some ‘lectricity strung up. There’s a firepit and a tire swing.  This year, Joe added a trampoline some neighbors threw out.   The outhouse even has a seat now!  They’s even a radio that plays both kinds of music–country AND western!

964278_10201797962103786_1118255642_oMy kids get so delightfully dirty there.  They play in the rain and the mud and the leaves.  When Vivi finds a smooth piece of old blue glass, it’s probably from a medicine jar that her great grandmother threw in a trash pile when Teddy Roosevelt was president.  Here’s Vivi trying to get marshmallow out of her eyebrow.

Just like Huck, I love going to Cowtail because I get to be real, all day long.  Wear my ratty sweats.  Shoot arrows at a target without worrying that I might be breaking an ordinance.  Pee in an outhouse while a mockingbird yammers at me to get out of her space.  Laugh with the same cousins I’ve been laughing with my whole life.  Throw logs on the fire.  Push the kids up towards the sky on a tractor tire until they scream.  Eat sandwiches and roast marshmallows and wipe my hands on my pants.  Drink wine out of a cup with my name written on it in Sharpie.  Hoot.  Holler.  Woof at stuff.


Then we load the kids and the dog and the dirty shoes and the leftovers and the leaf collection and the special rocks and the bows and arrows and shovels and really nice sticks.  We hug a bunch of necks and talk about when we’re going to do it again.  By sundown, we drive a slow mile on a dirt road then bump up onto the paved county road so we can make our way back to The City.  

Carlos played so hard this Sunday that this was him FIVE MILES away from Cowtail.  That boy done wore hisself plumb out!  That’s Huck right behind him in the back of the car.  Can’t see him?  Yeah, that’s because he was dog tired, too.    

BAD DOG! (good boy)

When a dog is working the door, you better straighten up.

When a dog is working the door, you better straighten up.

Huck had a tough Fourth of July.  He ran head-on into a world of mixed messages and shifting expectations.  If you haven’t met Huck before, he’s my 70lb Greater Pike Hound.  He looks like a cross between a white German Shepherd and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Here’s what went down from my perspective:

It’s 4pm.  Raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock.  I’m working on some baked beans on the kitchen counter.  I hear a car pull up, a door slam then a loud knock on the kitchen door.  I look over my shoulder to see Ed, my friend Jill’s husband, and I smile.  He throws the door open and comes busting through, dripping water and shouting a hello.

Here’s how Huck interpreted the same scene:

Loud noise.  Man at door.  Man opens door and comes towards my Mama.  He’s yelling.

Huckleberry-1, Ed-0uch.  Before I could tell Huck that it was OK, he came roaring out of the den, straight at Ed.  Backed him out the door and bit him on the hip.  DAMN!  What a way to kick off a pool party.

I smacked Huck twice on the nose and reaffirmed my role as pack master.  He cowered and skulked over to his crate.  Poor thing was really confused.  Ed was OK and cool with it.  Hey, that’s the dog’s job.  A little Neosporin and a cigarette and it was all jake.

Huck spent the rest of the afternoon apologizing to Ed with snuzzles and a lot of puppy dog eyes.  To his credit, he had only met Ed one time before, over a year ago.  Huck didn’t know that I had given a nonverbal cue that it was OK for Ed to come in.

This is the same dog I got after Richard died because I wanted to feel safe.  I wanted to be able to go for a walk by myself and not worry that someone was going to bother me.  I wanted a loud bark so that if anyone tried to sneak up on this house, I would know.  Guns give some people the same sense of security, but they don’t snuggle up to you when it thunders.

When we brought Vivi home from the hospital, Huck sniffed her foot and decided that she was HIS baby.  He sat by her swing in the den and whined at us if she fussed for too long.  When Carlos was about three weeks old, a drug dealer trying to outrun the cops crashed his car through our front yard and into the neighbor’s yard then fled on foot.  I let Huck out in the back yard.  He worked the perimeter before returning to me.  I assured the cops that NOBODY was hiding inside our fence.  (This makes our neighborhood sound so…exciting!)  My brother once came over while I was out.  Huck was penned up in the kitchen.  Joe came in through the back gate, up the basement stairs and busted in on Huck.  He about got his ass handed to him!  Huck snapped and snarled as Joe yelled, “HUCK!  It’s your Uncle Joe!  It’s OK, Buddy!  Your mom’s at Kroger!  Huck!  YOU KNOW ME!”  Joe decided to wait outside until I got back.

At our house, you ring the doorbell, alright?

So in the final analysis of the situation, part of me was saying “BAD DOG!” for him biting Ed, but the other part of me knows he was a dog doing his job.

And not five minutes after Huck and Ed made up, my friend Jean came over with her dog, Scout…who played nice for a while but then Huck got too close to HER mama…He got his ass handed to him.  By a GIRL.  Who weighs 20lbs less than he does and had just had her coat shaved.

He retired to his crate with a “I am DONE with this day.  Peace out.”