This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
BR’ER COON & THE DOG BOY ...In Which Br'er Coon Gets His Licks in on the Mean Dog and the Dog Boy Abdicates Since there was no one else his age living near us, my younger brother the Dog Boy could have been a pretty lonely kid when the two of us were growing up. That was more than half a century ago, on the edge of a hardwood forest bordering the Muskingum River in the Appalachian hill country of Southeastern Ohio. Imagination is what sustained him. It's too long a story to begin at the beginning so we'll start where Douggie has already organized the motley crew of mongrels who hung around our house, and our unspayed female collie, into a loyal gang of his own. He was a soft-spoken leader who, if he carried a stick at all, did so only because one could usually be found lying around in the yard, and a big stick just feels good in your hands when you're a kid. His lieutenant was another interloping non-dog named Br'er Coon, the masked member of this large, constantly shifting menagerie. He thought he was a dog (Br'er Coon I mean, although this was equally true of my brother at the time), a sort of superdog actually, and even though they all knew he wasn't, none of the real ones would have considered contesting the issue with him. The canines themselves were all sex slaves in the male harem of Libbet, our female collie, who held court under a big apple tree in our back yard.
2 The sole survivor of a family of raccoons felled with their family tree by loggers, Br'er Coon had been given as a baby to my father, a sawmill owner, who brought him home as a pet for Douggie and me. But within a few months Br'er Coon showed us all – particularly our two dogs, who on command would open the screen door for him with their noses – who the real fourlegged boss of the place was. He kept peace among the brethren and was never reluctant to mete out a little justice when he thought it was due. Dogs generally don't ask questions of someone who makes his point by gnawing on your nose or swatting it with his sharp claws. There was a lot to do back then on those lazy summer afternoons. The woods had to be constantly patrolled of course, and exploration parties led into uncharted areas of the wilderness, like the Great Swamp (still there although actually a boglet about the size of a swimming pool) and the neighbors' apple orchard, a perilous climb through trees and underbrush to a ridge which to Douggie and me was an alpine meadow overlooking our house and the river. Even just the bull/dog sessions in the back yard had to be organized or there were bound to be scuffles in which ears got bitten and feelings hurt. This was especially true when Libbet was in heat – at which time Mom generally kept the garden hose coiled up close at hand just outside the screen door. One of Douggie's favorite tricks to keep all the dogs on their toes was to sneak off into the woods during the daily siesta and, after hiding in some remote, inaccessible location, letting go with one of his varied and credible assortment of barks. Everyone's familiar with the posse scene in the old westerns, where the stillness of a hot, stifling afternoon is suddenly broken by the sheriff and his hastily deputized band of cowboys and saloon riffraff thundering heroically out of town on another desperate mission, clouds of dust trembling in the air behind them. So you know exactly how that bunch of layabouts reacted to
3 the sudden unfamiliar bark in their territory. Out of the yard they'd come, one long loud cacophonous bellow in reply. Then about half an hour later they'd all come trotting sheepishly back down the hill and into the yard, wagging their unkempt burr-infested tails with feigned nonchalance, the same way we humans yawn or glance down at our watches, to show that of course they'd known all along that it was just another of their leader's drills. One animal that had them all buffaloed, including my brother, was the Mean Dog who lived up on the ridge. Every once in a while he'd get loose, and it was all Douggie could do to keep panic from spreading among his canine corps. The Mean Dog, a huge part-shepherd, part-collie, was the antithesis of the kennel full of male and female collies billed collectively over the years as Lassie. He hated everything and everybody, from the tiniest freshly born bunny to the biggest dog in the gang: a toothless old St. Bernard who wouldn't even gum you in anger. On one particularly sultry summer day when all the dogs in our part of the woods had come over to collapse under the magisterial apple tree in our back yard, each ensconced on his own little corner of cool, shaded earth, my brother the Dog Boy was up to his old tricks. There he went, sneaking out of the yard, while Br'er Coon relieved his displeasure from the oppressive heat by picking fights with the underdogs in the gang. Soon, sure enough, one of Douggie's improvised and unfamiliar barks rang out in the heavy air. Chaos – there went the dogs, tumbling over one another in their rush for the woods. Poor Br'er Coon, nearly trampled in the stampede, glared furiously at the cloud of dust marking their mad dash from the yard. Then, no sooner had they disappeared into the woods than here they came back again, even more frantically than they'd left – with the Dog Boy leading the way. It seems the Mean Dog
4 had escaped that day and was bent on investigating this peculiar canine-like ululation himself. When Douggie caught a glimpse of this bad case of four-legged attitude scrambling down the hill through the underbrush, he lit out for home. On the way, he met the onrushing posse and shot through it as if his young life was at stake – "steak" is probably how his creative mind imagined the encounter. Sensing, as animals will, what was up – perhaps just a whiff of the Dog Boy's sheer terror was enough – the dogs made wide, desperate U-turns and, tails tucked, followed him full-blast for the back yard. That burst of boy and dogs out of the quiet, still-leafed forest was one of the strangest things one in those days could behold. The path wasn't very wide – there was room enough for the smaller dogs to avoid the stickers that lined both sides in many places – but that afternoon they managed somehow to come down the trail neck and neck ten or more abreast. They looked like a flash flood in a gully. Nothing could have withstood their onslaught as they came barking, yelping, snarling at one another, screaming toward the house. Hot on their heels, amazed no doubt at the spectacle, came the Mean Dog. If dogs have a sense of humor, as I'm sure many do, it must have been difficult for him to keep from ruining his ferocious image by bursting into inappropriate mad-dog laughter. Br'er Coon, who hadn't even dusted himself off from the first stampede, watched their return, bristling. In spite of their abject terror, those dogs swept around him without breaking stride. You didn't mess with that old raccoon under any circumstances when his dander was up. The Mean Dog was right behind them. Ordinarily he'd have chased this coon to the end of the ridge and back, but unable to resist the shrieking pack of canines, he elected now simply to run him over. Br'er Coon didn't flinch.
5 In swooped the Mean Dog, up sprang the raccoon...and off they went in the opposite direction, Br'er Coon perched on the howling dog's head, one scruffy ear clenched firmly in his needle-sharp teeth. Br'er Coon was so casual about it by the time they reached the large pasture field west of the house, you almost expected him to reach down and speed-shift into third gear. He leaned out expertly on the turn before they vanished in the high grass at the edge of the field. There was silence then for a good minute under the apple tree. Douggie scuffed his tennies against the ground; the dogs glanced around to see who'd been the most scared. A flirtatious little breeze began to play through the leaves of the big apple tree. Then, imperceptibly to human eyes, the Dog Boy motioned his charges over for a conference. He was relinquishing command, he said. He was getting too old for this sort of nonsense and, besides, Br'er Coon had acquitted himself admirably. He'd make an able leader from now on. "'Ear, 'ear," they all cried in their secret dog language.
OTZ & THE DOG BOY ...In Which Otz Lives a Very Short Happy Life Everybody – Br'er Coon and all the real dogs – hated Otz. Old and disagreeable, with bad breath and a chronic case of mange, Otz hung around most of the time on the back porch (nobody'd ever heard of decks in those days) of a cabin down the road from our house. He was an irascible little runt, a faux fox terrier with a chip on his shoulder who limped slightly for sympathy. Every day when he headed home in a huff, grumbling and growling down our long driveway, his limp was worse than when he had wandered up the drive an hour or so earlier.
6 He didn't limp on the way up because he wasn't entirely abject, just mean and ornery. He hoped the painful hobble back to his house would make all those who had once more banished him from the back yard feel guilty again. It was an old story we had all gotten really tired of. Actually, most of the dogs just ignored Otz. He was beneath contempt: a foul little creature who couldn't catch a rabbit if they were in the same cage together – who couldn't even open his mouth without grumbling about something. Oh, once in a while one of them would sidle over and give Otz a perfunctory sniff when he came into the yard, but this was mainly to check out the bald spots caused by his mange and it infuriated him. Everyone always got a laugh out of that. My brother Douggie and I always had a lot of fun with him too. Otz's daily routine was so set you could have kept time by it. Every morning just after nine o'clock, when the last faint remnants of fog were vanishing from the Muskingum River in front of our house, you could expect to see his gnarled old head peer suspiciously around the corner of the hedge bordering our cinder driveway. He always looked up, then down, then back up the drive towards our house. Then, slowly, he'd make his long cautious walk up to the back yard. Glancing from side to side as he approached, poor old Otz tried to muster as much dignity as he could. Douggie and I might be hidden beside the garage, or on the flat garage roof or in the hedge. Then when Otz was just a step or two away, we didn't jump out at him; that would have been too crude, too obvious. We'd discovered that it was far more effective to poke our heads out very casually, without uttering a sound, letting the expressions on our faces alone say, "Why hello, Otz." And Otz would immediately growl, turn around and go trotting stiffly back to the wooden stairs down to his house, muttering indignantly the whole time. "Grrrummmmble-ummumble-
7 rum-rumble grrum-rumumble," was his traveling music all the way back to the little cabin below our hedge. By this time Douggie and I would both be gasping for breath beneath our fiendish laughter. "Poor Otz!" we would howl. "Aww...here, Otz! Here, Otzie!" Unfailingly, he would cast a wrathful look back over his shoulder and growl even louder – "GRRUMMM-RUMBLE-RUM-RUM!" – before disappearing around the corner of the hedge. His owners took a dim view of such behavior and persuaded Dad to help put a stop to it; he told us the next report he got of our teasing Otz would mean an automatic whipping. Well, it couldn't have been more than a couple of days later that we got caught peeking around the hedge at Otz, setting off a low rumble that had the whole rickety porch of that cabin vibrating. When I saw the screen door swing open, all I could think of was Dad's strong right arm. "Ah hah – caught him, didn't you, Mr. Stevens?" I managed to get out without losing a beat. "I caught both of you!" he contradicted me. A few minutes later Dad had us out breaking our own individual switches off the apple tree. That's one of the last whippings I ever got, and I've often wondered whether it was Dad's stinging blows (which I can still feel), having been made complicitous in my own pain, or guilt at having attempted to blame the whole thing on Douggie that has kept the memory fresh all these years. Whether it was the whipping or the fact that I started school soon afterwards and suddenly found it beneath my dignity to fool with a scrawny old dog, I did finally leave teasing Otz to my brother. It seems that Otz became something of a hermit after that; perhaps he'd finally learned he
8 just wasn't welcome up under the apple tree. Maybe one of the younger and stronger dogs, or Br'er Coon's sharp teeth, took a piece out of his scaly hide. In any case his reclusiveness compelled Douggie to develop our old game into a fine science. During the day, when Otz's owners were both at work, Douggie would take half an hour or more to sneak stealthily down the hill and around the cabin behind the high back porch where Otz now spent most of each day on a doormat, looking balefully out over his little world. There were several big nail kegs overturned beneath the porch, and Douggie would climb carefully onto the one farthest from the door, then creep noiselessly from keg to keg until he was right under Otz's nose. Picture Otz lying there curled up on the mat or stretched out in the sun gazing into space, eyes glazed and heavy-lidded as he nurses some private grudge or thinks back over the long years to happier, more carefree days...when suddenly, a big moonface rises slowly over the horizon of the plank porch floor. Not a sound: just a big snicker-shaped grin curving from one dirty ear above a fat little chin to the other. It happened several times a week but Otz, perhaps a little senile by now, was always taken by surprise. "GRR-RUM-Rum-Rummmble!" And there'd go Douggie in case the woman who lived there was home unexpectedly and might catch him – Otz still trembling with rage, the stiff grey hairs raised on the back of his neck like a horse's cropped mane. Then one day a surprising thing happened. A strange car pulled up in the driveway and stopped at the head of the stairs down to Otz's cabin. Two teenage boys, a girl about twice my age and their parents got out of the car. One of the boys whistled and shouted, "Here, Boots!
9 Here, Boots!" My brother and I looked at each other, then sauntered down to see what all the commotion was about. We were about halfway down the drive when up those steps streaked crippled old Otz. You'd have thought he was a puppy, the way he jumped and skipped and danced around, all the time crying with joy. The girl and boys each picked him up and hugged him. I think their mother even had tears in her eyes. Otz was so happy to see them. Our own mother learned later that when these people, who had obviously been Otz's family at one time, had moved to the city they'd had to give him away because it was too dangerous for him there. When they left him behind once again, Otz couldn't understand why he still wasn't allowed to go with them. He stood in the driveway at the top of the stairs for a long time after they drove away. My brother says it was only a few days later that old Otz died.
THE DOG BOY‟S ESCAPE … in which the Dog Boy Is Sprung from Day Camp When Otz died, it was as if he‟d merely turned up missing from the open-air toy chest that was the woods and fields and overgrown yard around the house where my brother the Dog Boy and I lived. Someone had taken him out and forgotten to put him back as far as Douggie and I were concerned. We knew Otz wasn‟t coming back, but death was even more of a mystery to us then than it is now. My brother really missed the irascible little runt, much to my surprise, until it finally occurred to me that whatever his constant teasing had meant to poor Otz, to Douggie it had been no different than hanging around me when I didn‟t want him there. In lieu
10 of the kind of attention he would have preferred, he‟d learned to turn being annoying into his own amusement; he really hadn‟t meant to make Otz‟s life miserable. But now he hardly knew what to do with himself. Unfortunately for Douggie, I‟d begun to hang out with a roughneck kid about twice my size and age who lived across the pasture field from our house. Junior Cheaseley was always getting me to play football with him in the side yard, and I went around with a perpetual headache from our one-sided games of tackle. Gone were the rainy days in the summer when Mom would fashion loincloths for us so we could streak around the yard playing Tarzan. And the day-long cowboy sagas, starring me as Roy Rogers and the Dog Boy as Gene Autry, with Mom often as not playing the saloon-keeper when we‟d come in for lunch or a drink of water. (She said that once or twice she became the madam of Ma‟s Bordello for her own amusement, aware that we would be clueless.) “Howdy, pardners, what‟ll ya have?” she‟d say. “I‟ve got some mighty cold cherry Kool Aid on tap, and I can rustle up a couple of egg-an‟-olive sandwiches pronto that oughta satisfy a cowboy-sized hunger.” We‟d play right along with her unless our game had already ended, in which case (Mom has told us) we‟d give her this condescending look as if she were a rank amateur reading for a part that was way over her head or for a casting call that had come and gone. Gone, too, were Douggie‟s and my daily safaris on all the game trails between our house and the woods. With weeds and tall grass up to our heads and higher, the familiar territory never lost its allure. Adventure was always beckoning, leading us to the next turn or through the stand of underbrush that we knew as well as we knew the way to the bathroom at night with the lights off. What we could never know for sure was what might lie just ahead. Once it had been a
11 copperhead coiled on the path to sun itself. I saw it just in time to jump back, and then Mom lobbed a rock at it. I‟ve never seen anything disappear as fast as that snake did. There were a lot of snakes on our property and in the woods behind our house. Occasionally we‟d discover a long thick blacksnake climbing the stucco siding; less often, Dad would bring one still very much alive up from the cellar where he‟d been shoveling coal into the furnace. He‟d hold the writhing snake pinched between thumb and forefinger just behind the head, unwilling to kill it because blacksnakes kept the rat population under control. The rats had been drawn to that dank subterranean setting of a recurrent nightmare of mine by black walnuts Dad had unwisely accepted from a farmer who‟d sold him logs. His mistake was storing them in the cellar. Although I don‟t remember it, Mom said the smell of roast rat, cooked in the furnace flue, would stay with her forever. Douggie and I never ventured down to the basement unless Dad was there, but we foolishly insisted on playing horse on our hands and knees in high grass around an old stone spring house in the back yard. Our parents had tried keeping the dogs there at night when we moved in, but they howled so piteously the idea was abandoned. Later when workmen demolished the spring house, they found it infested with copperheads and blacksnakes alike, normally mortal enemies. So no more horseplay in the high grass, and with Otz gone, my younger brother had no one to play with other than his loyal band of dogs in the back yard when Junior Cheaseley and I were together. Concerned, perhaps, that the Dog Boy was adapting only too well to the fourlegged company he was keeping, Mom decided to take action. Poor Douggie was sentenced to Day Camp. I thought it was so unfair. What had the Dog Boy done to deserve such punishment?
12 Incarceration every summer afternoon when he should be outdoors in the fresh air, swinging under the apple tree, feeding the hard little green apples to Frank, the neighbors‟ big workhorse, who almost always got a bellyache from them. Or making a splash in his underpants (Mom and Dad called them “training pants”) in one of the galvanized washtubs filled with water that were our wading pools in those days. Anything but being cooped up indoors with a bunch of little kids his age. When I told Junior he said, “What‟s to stop us from rescuing him?” I just looked at him, remembering the winding 15-minute drive it had taken us to deliver the prisoner the first day. “I know where it is,” he said. “If we cut up through the woods, it‟s not that far. What‟s wrong, you afraid you can‟t make it?” “No!” I said indignantly. “Only, what about the Mean Dog?” “Oh, he lives in the other direction, you big fraidy cat,” he said. “I‟m not either afraid. Let‟s go – you lead the way.” So off we started, much higher up the steep hill and deeper into the woods behind our house than I‟d ever ventured, until the green leafy branches and a cool echoing silence closed over our heads. Soon there was no longer any path, just the thickly leaf-strewn slope punctuated with rock outcroppings and small trees struggling, as I was, for a foothold on the hillside. Junior‟s long legs and arms served him well. He would take a big gallop and lunge forward to grab hold of the nearest sapling, then repeat the procedure over and over, churning his legs in the thick mulch of leaves and loose rock beneath us, pulling himself up the steep slope tree by tree. Though I watched and tried to imitate him, he got farther and farther ahead of me until I finally yelled, “Wait up!” It had suddenly occurred to me that I could get lost if I lost
13 sight of him. But he waited and was true to his word, because when we finally reached the top of the slope and I looked back behind us at the seemingly endless, nearly vertical vista of trees we had climbed through to reach this high place – from which shimmering glimpses of the river were visible far below – Junior suddenly yelled, “See, there it is!” Sure enough: I turned to see ahead of us a long low building of cedar siding which I recognized from my visit earlier. This was where the Dog Boy was being held prisoner. We scurried bent over, as I‟d seen soldiers do in war movies, toward the Day Camp. It was somehow sinister-looking despite the absence of the cyclone fence topped with barbed wire that I‟d been picturing in my mind for days. Somewhere inside the Dog Boy was being held against his will. As we got closer we could hear little kids‟ excited voices. Then Junior motioned for me to get down. They were all outside, in some kind of playground – and there was Douggie! This was going to be easier than I had imagined. It took us a minute to get his attention, but when he saw us hunkered down behind some pine trees that ringed the Day Camp‟s perimeter, the Dog Boy grinned goofily and waved. Junior cursed, gesturing angrily for him to get his butt over here, now. Douggie ran over, his chubby little legs appearing somehow pitiful to me when I thought of him locked up all day – well, most of the day: all afternoon anyway – in this creepy place. “Come on!” said Junior, “we‟re gonna bust you outa here!” The Dog Boy just stood there for a moment with a puzzled expression on his face, looking from Junior to me, then back to Junior. “Get your ass in gear, Douggie!” barked Junior. “We‟re blowin‟ this joint!”
14 I ran forward and grabbed his hand, and away we went, back into the forest and down that steep hillside. The Dog Boy didn‟t say a word, he didn‟t have a chance to; we were too busy trying to keep from breaking our necks. Once again Junior got farther and farther ahead of us. I couldn’t go any faster because I was holding my brother’s sweaty little hand. “Wait up, Junior!” I shouted. “Wait for us!” But there was no sign of him now. A vast stillness had taken hold of the forest. The only reply was the echo of my voice and the Dog Boy’s plaintive whimper beside me. “What‟re you cryin‟ for?” I said gruffly, to hide my own fear. “We can find our way home.” Although there was no path to guide us, obviously we needed to keep going downhill. Maybe I‟d spot a landmark of some kind. Once that had occurred to me and we were on our way again, I began to feel almost as confident as I was trying to appear. We angled our way down the steep slope, grabbing small trees to slow our descent in the same way Junior and I had used them to pull ourselves up half an hour earlier. Then we came to a deep rocky gully that I knew Junior and I hadn‟t crossed, and my fear of being lost returned. “How are we going to get across?” asked the Dog Boy. Getting across isn‟t the point, I wanted to yell at him. Where the hell are we? Then I had a Junior Woodchuck kind of brainstorm. (For you late-comers, the Junior Woodchucks were the scouting-like organization Huey, Dewey and Louie, Donald Duck‟s nephews, belonged to. Before TV almost any kid could have told you that.) This was probably the same gully, just farther up the hill, that I had fallen into a few months earlier – egged on by Junior. If it was, there was a grapevine hanging in the middle of it a little farther down the slope, which the two of us used to swing on. „Til I cracked my skull, that is, and went crying all the way home, with Junior pleading with me to shut up, lest his father hear me and make the
15 grapevine off limits, which he did. “Serves you right,” I told Junior, still angry that he‟d talked me into jumping from the side of what seemed to me like the Grand Canyon for the grapevine that he had no trouble at all reaching. He‟d bolstered my confidence by swinging the vine – which was hard and as thick as my wrist – toward me from the other side of the gully and having me jump a little farther for it each time, until finally it was just hanging there over the abyss. Which, after much urging from Junior, I had leaped into. That was the first time I “saw stars,” as the saying goes. Now my place of pain might lead the Dog Boy and me home. I explained to Douggie why we had to make the treacherous descent into what was now the Grand Canyon to him, though I don‟t think he really understood my reasoning. A few minutes later we were picking our way through jagged rocks like those I had learned my lesson on. There was just a trickle of water, but its happy bubbling sound kept us company as it flowed along with us downstream. In no time at all, it seemed, we were beneath the grapevine I hadn‟t seen since my fall, and the hike home from there was a cinch. When we came out of the woods, who should we see but Junior‟s father working in the field. My pride at leading my brother and me to safety was punctured when the Dog Boy called out to Mr. Cheaseley, “We were lost!” “We weren‟t lost,” I said angrily, feeling humiliated in the eyes of Junior‟s father, who had heard me bawling like a baby just a few months earlier. Douggie just gave me a look which, half a century before the evolution of the word as it‟s used now, said clearly, “ Whatever.” I certainly received no hero‟s welcome at home. Mom was furious at me for the furor that had ensued when the Dog Boy turned up Missing at Day Camp. She‟d been worried sick, she said. Just wait till your father gets home. “But, but we only did it for Douggie,” I
16 stammered, feeling misunderstood and unjustly accused. “Tell her,” I said to him, “tell her how you hate the place.” Even I could see how confused the Dog Boy was, looking from my mother to me, then back to her again. I got a sick feeling in my stomach when I realized he was struggling to hold onto a semblance of sibling loyalty. If he was trying to defend me, that could only mean that I‟d been wrong after all. “...It is kind of sissy,” he said, repeating what I‟d said to him after hearing the description from Junior. But that was as far as he was willing to go. To my chagrin, he quickly added, “But I can go again tomorrow can‟t I?” That night in bed I would nurse a feeling of betrayal (which didn‟t last more than a day or two), but right then all I could think of was the utter certainty of being sent out the next day to the apple tree to cut a switch for my corporal enlightenment. To be administered of course by my father “Roshi” Nathan, the Zen master of punishment.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.