26 September 2008

Frank's Last Trip

No more adventures in airports, climbing in and out of travel crates, putting up with too-hot tarmacs and confrontations with TSA officials who pondered how to be sure he was not a Al Quada suicide-dog. No more boat trips to Nantucket, toenails digging into the fiberglass decks when the boat rolls. This gentle soul tolerated all that stuff with a dignity, grace, and charm that was a model for his fellow canines and the humans who were so naive as to believe they they ran the lives of their canine pets, and not the other way around. Frank passed on two days ago.

Frank was born in June, 1994, one of eleven pups delivered by that even-tempered yellow Lab from Remsenburg, NY. We were privileged to visit the family three weeks later. The jumble of furry critters in that jerry-rigged pen, some yellow, some black, two browns, all with big feet, floppy ears, and vigorously wagging tails, is not readily describable. Add to that the excitement attributable to the arrival of strangers (us), and you have a YouTube prize-winner. Mom, happy for the break, was elsewhere. As eager as she was for a respite from suckling eleven needle-toothed pups, she would not yet readily tolerate any approach by a stranger who might be a threat the close-knit family group. Such is nature: four weeks hence she would not even notice her children were disappearing at the rate of one or two a day, but at this stage, when visitors were scheduled to arrive, she had to be isolated elsewhere in the house. Dad, a Black Lab who had won some best-of-breed prizes, was off at work--busy being a Champion and making more champions. I think his home turf was Canada, or wherever. I do know that after his brief liaison with Frank's mom, he never saw her or the Mendelian stew he had left behind. Hey, he was doing his job.

The home-breeders gave us some choices. We had opted to take two pups from the litter. We wanted black ones, because we had just lost our eight year old yellow lab, and did not want...well, I can't really verbalize the rationale, but this time we wanted black pups. I cannot remember the breakdown, but I do recall that there was one female and two males that were still available. The owner said we could have the female (Rita) but he would need to wait another four weeks to see which of the two males he would keep as a show dog. We did not much care. Showing was not our thing. A year later, he stopped by in Westhampton to see how Frank had turned out. When he saw Frank, he paled. He had chosen the wrong dog. Lucky us.

Frank knew he was handsome. He loved being brushed, loved his baths, loved to pose. He reminded us of the film character Zoolander. Always posing, but not so quick on the draw. Frank was a lover--the cuddliest beast ever. He rarely barked. He left the watchdog chores to his sister who, as the vet put it, manipulated Frank into believing he was the alpha dog in the family, but she actually ran the show. On the other hand, I suspect this was a double reverse: Frank knew that Rita thought.....you know what I mean.

The two pups slept together, ate together, played together. We saw early why the "experts" advise against adopting two puppies at the same time. While they do certainly keep each other company (our rationale), the flip side is that their their bond to each other is stronger than their bond to us. Take them out for a walk and it becomes immediately clear who is walking whom. Pinks has the scars to prove it.

The happiest I have ever seen these two was on the beach. Free of their leashes, they raced after gulls. Never caught one of course, but Frank never figured out that which Rita learned early in the game: the gulls sat on the sand and stared at him racing toward them, and then always lifted off and flew away when he got within striking distance. He never quit trying until his arthritis got the better of him.

Best was the game the two invented: Pinks and I called it "Statues." Brother and sister would sit facing each other in that beautiful alert pose, 100 feet apart, staring, not moving so much as an eyelash. At some invisible signal, they would simultaneously break the pose, run full speed right at each other and veer left just before the head-on collision. How did they know when to start? How did they know each to turn to the left? They never told us. Ours was not to know. Ours was to enjoy the show. Pure delight.

I remember another occasion: we were walking the dogs to the beach across the boardwalk over the dunes. Two houses down to the east lived a musician and his cat. The cat came out on the back deck to see what was going on. Uh, oh. Frank spied it, leaped off the boardwalk and charged after it, yanking the leash out of Pinks's hand. The cat left town in a hurry, speeding east. The musician came out like a shot. He was berserk. Totally insane. He stormed over to us, accused Frank of scaring his cat, what kind of vicious monster dog were we raising anyway, etc, etc. He was going to sue, and we would hear from his lawyer. Meanwhile, the neighbor whose house was between our boardwalk and the musician's house, came out and joined the fray. She vigorously defended Frank, and accused the musician of being noisy, and harboring a cat that chased birds and otherwise trespassed on her property. While my neighbors were having at it, I strolled east across the dune, looking for Frank. I did not have to go far. The musician, in rushing out to confront us, had left his screen door open. Frank was in his kitchen, at the cat's feeding dish, eating the cat's lunch. That's our Frankie boy: first things first.

Frank, to the manor born, not only never hunted, he never even played at it. He couldn't be bothered to retrieve for more than a few throws of the tennis ball, and, check this, hated the water! Yup, he was a disgrace to his breed. Not only did refuse to go into the ocean, he refused to allow his sister to go into the ocean, and when she started into the water, he would gingerly wade in up to his elbows, grab her by the scruff of the neck, and drag her ashore. Amazing. Pinks could occasionally coax him into the bay, and he swam like a lab should, but he always quickly hastened to shore, whimpered and watched forlornly while Pinks and Rita swam around. When the returning Rita got to the point where the water was shallow enough for her to stand, Frank waded in and did his scruff-of-the-neck thing. Rita never complained.

My scariest Frank story: Pinks and I had an even division dog chores: She would wake early and take them out in the morning, feed them, take them on a one-mile after-breakfast walk, do the four p.m. walk, feed them again, etc, and I would walk them at night. Sounded fair to me. My evening walk followed a standard route: north on Beekman to 51st street, west to First Avenue, south on First to 50th street, east on 50th to Beekman, and then south to our building. One night when the pups were about six years old, I came home late after some serious imbibing at a Christmas party. It was snowing hard, bitter cold, but I was feeling no pain. Dressed warmly, including my ski mittens, I set out with my charges. The doormen had not yet salted the sidewalks, so the dogs loved the walk. They hated the rain, but loved the snow. Go figure. Anyway, they sniffed, dallied, sniffed some more and we made our way up to 51st, thence west, etc. As was my wont, for the latter part of walk, after the sibs had done all their sniffing, peeing, and pooping for the night, I would finish the walk at a brisker clip, holding the two leashes together in one hand, behind my back. By that time, they too were eager to hurry back to their warm bed and they willingly trotted along behind me. When I walked into the building, Carlos the doorman had a puzzled visage: "Mr. London, where is Frank?" I turned and started to point, but there was only Rita. How could that be? I looked at the two leashes in my mittened hand. Yikes, there was only Rita's leash, doubled over. No Frank! I thrust Rita's leash at Carlos, and ran like a maniac to 50th street, then west down the north side of 50th, retracing my steps of a few minutes past. Talk about panic. I slipped and slided, rocketing down the block, yelling his name. And there, at the end of the block, on the northeast corner of 50th St. and First Avenue, sat Frank, in that classic show pose, staring west at who knows what across First Ave, his leash still attached to his collar. He might as well have been a statue. When I bent, picked up his leash, and hugged him so hard he almost fell over, he looked at me as if to say "Hey, Dad, what's up? You should see how interesting it is to watch the cars and trucks sliding and skidding up First Avenue!" And home we walked, side by side. When we arrived at 2 Beekman, Rita was lying in the lobby, bored. I swore Carlos to secrecy (Yeah, fat chance, it would be all over the building as soon as the morning shift came on) and went upstairs and immediately told Pinks the story, describing how I raced pell mell down 50th street in the snow. When I said "Darling, there is no way I could come home without Frank," she simply said "Well, you're right about that."

When Rita died of kidney failure at age ten, we lost part of Frank too. For six months he wandered around in a fog. He could not understand where his bed mate was. Not only had they slept in the same bed, he slept with his head on her abdomen. Always. And never the other way around. He was always the first out of any door, and then he would stop, turn, and wait for his sister. When the day came that she was no longer there, Frank just stared and waited, and waited, and waited. Only a tug on the leash would prompt him to move. After a while he improved some, but Frank never came all the way back. He was like a grieving widower.

For the last two years of his life, Frank's home base was Montauk. It was his favorite spot for two reasons:

First, he had a big lawn to walk around and lie on, and there were no steps to be negotiated to get in and out of the house. Given his arthritis, that was a very big deal.

Second, Frank discovered striped bass. Now I love to fish. And in Montauk, fishing means principally striped bass. I do not catch a lot of striped bass, but when you catch one fish, that is a lot of striped bass. Frank always liked fish, and would eagerly eat our leftovers of store-bought salmon, or my catches of fluke, and even bluefish. But he went absolutely nuts over striped bass. Roasted, baked, grilled, sauteed, no matter. He did not just wag his tail. It turned like a propeller. He was obsessed. A dog with good taste. $16.95 a pound at the fish store. Frank had a taste for nobility. It got to be so that when my fishing buddies and I divided up the striped bass fillets at the end of the day, I would say, "Our freezer is full, so just give me enough for dinner tonight--three portions, Pinks, me, and Frank."

On Tuesday evening we grilled a huge fillet, half a 30-pound striper caught the day before. We had a guest for dinner, and between the three humans and Frank, we did a lot of damage to that slab of fish. There were still a lot of leftovers, and on Wednesday morning Frank had some of them in his breakfast bowl. After breakfast, we took Frank to vet for what we humans euphemistically call "Being put to sleep." That is accurate as far as it goes, I guess, but it is much like some of the McCain ads I see on television: Always a germ of truth, but materially less than the whole story.

A little later that long sad day, we sat down for a late lunch. And in the refrigerator sat the plastic tub with the remains of the delicious striped bass. I knew Frank would be happy to share with me his leftovers. He was, to the end, a generous soul.

I'd like to think that our Frank is now back playing with his sister during the day, and at night sleeping with his head on her side. I don't really believe that stuff, y'know, but it sure is a nice thought. He was entitled to dream about chasing rabbits in his sleep, and I am entitled to dream my dreams while awake. This one will be right up there with my throwing the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.

Frankie boy, you are a hole in my day.

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