Monday, May 29, 2006

A Leave From Absence

Sometimes a pet’s name doesn’t sink in, doesn’t take. I read once that pets, especially dogs, can best learn their name if it contains two distinct syllables. Perhaps thus was spawned Fi-do and Fi-fi. So when we tagged our animal-shelter survivor as “Cosmo Topper Puppy Moore,” his moniker was doomed from the beginning. He learned the “Puppy” part, and the rest of his label seemed to fall on peanut-buttered ears. So “Puppy” it became.

Puppy was epileptic. We didn’t know dogs could be, but yes, the recurring seizures are not unlike those of their human friends. But he lived beyond his odds, finally giving in to the toll at age fifteen. Owners all know that the loss of a pet exacts a predictable reaction:

“That’s it,” I said. “No more dogs. I never want another. I can’t go through that pain again.” A bear hug from my wife Kay signaled that she felt the same.

For eight years, we were satisfied with our lone housecat, “Read-‘Em-a-Clipping News Carver Moore.” Knowing that cats only answer to kitty-kitty—and only if they choose to—we had deliberately splurged on his name.

One Saturday afternoon, at a large outdoor bazaar near Dallas, we saw signs directing visitors to “Pet Island.” I thought… petting zoo? Let’s check that out. Instead, it was a pet marketplace, where vendors and breeders came together in a truer sort of “flea” market. It had a festival atmosphere, complete with clowns and characters dressed in stuffed-animal attire. There was Winnie the Poo, Tigger, some sports-team mascots, and a couple of gigantic pullets flapping about, unable to take wing. I also recognized the celebrity Smokey Bear, apparently on fire-holiday thanks to recent rains. All these frolicking critters were handing out animal crackers to the children.

“It’s just Disney-like hypnosis—a marketing gimmick for the kids out here,” I muttered cynically.

We strolled past pens and containers with boas, miniature goats, and pot-bellied pigs—the “desperation” choices for pet lovers, or at least intended for folks more adventurous than me. Then I saw the picket fence, with an ivy-covered gate labeled “Man’s-Best-Friend Resort.” My thoughts raced back to Puppy Moore, and I tarried at the entrance. Just out of sight, I could hear the joyful mingle of excited yelps and shrieks of joy from small children. It would be a mistake to enter here.

Kay touched my arm softly, beckoning me on with welled eyes. We moved through the gate together, as if facing up to some intentionally delayed appointment.

This was not ordinary puppy-mill territory. AKC professional kennels and regal-sounding breeder farms dotted both sides of a cedar-shavings walkway. It was a red-carpet welcome. No hawking of wares, no carnival hucksterism. Instead, it was a best-behavior collection of well-groomed and coiffed animals—with masters to match.

“The Rocking-A Kennel” caught my eye. Their breed line was the Australian Shepherd. For me it was a first introduction, as I had never met an “Aussie.” From the rack, I browsed their pamphlets about the coloration differences; blue, and red merle. With faces less sharp than Lassie’s, the adults nonetheless showed strains of Collie or maybe Border Collie, but with the odd ending of a bobbed-tail. I was impressed with what appeared to be a perfect blend of strength and poise. I was also mystified by their eyes—one gold and one blue.

The parents of the litter were being presented to the public in royalty fashion. They were lounged on a spread of artificial turf, almost engulfed by an amphitheatre of trophies and ribbons.

“Sire Tommie-On-Cudgegong and Dame Rachel Wurnshire-Heather,” the sign said. So much for simple two-syllable names, I thought. “Cosmo Topper Puppy Moore” suddenly seemed quite sensible.

Next to this pedigree-castle sat a child’s playpen. Inside were the princes and princesses of the Crown. As we leaned into the enclosure, our faces must have looked like Halloween lanterns beaming from above. As each of the four puppies stared up with cocked heads, one scrambled toward us from the farthest corner. He reared up on hind legs and strained toward my nose with all his power. As he got close, I swear I heard something of a whisper from him…”Pick me!” There. I heard it again. “Pick me,” the voice said, this time with emphasis.

I plucked him from the playpen and held him to my chest. He was the size of a child’s football, mostly fur, with a red tongue darting in and out. His whimper spoke louder than any car-salesman’s wail. There was no putting him back. I paid the price without even haggling—shooing away the checkbook sentinel who had so rudely reminded me that my first house payment wasn’t this much.

On the ride home, we agreed to call him “Quigley,” after the character in the Australian-setting television show. From that first day, he has validated the wisdom of our selection many times. I have marveled at his innate kindness and intelligence, his remarkable obedience, and his penchant for wanting to “herd” anything that moves, including the occasional errant dust-bunny.

Raising pets, like rearing children, is the great educator. Profiting from experience, Kay and I had agreed on certain strict house-pet rules. Quickly it became evident that our concerns had been unnecessary. His potty and furniture training tasks were mastered so quickly that our home soon became free range.

We have learned that the more time we spend with Quigley, the more he is able to reveal his intelligence. We were especially struck by his ability to accurately identify each of his four rubber chew-toys. They are the same size and shape, differing only in their colors.

“Get your red one,” I say, showing off to friends.

“Now go find your black one.” It works every time.

My friends all maintain that dogs are color blind. My Internet searches have supported that notion. I don’t claim to understand it. All I know is when I say, “Quigley, go get your yellow one,” he does. So I just accept it as a wonderful gift and constantly search the pet stores for new colors to add to his palette.

I have never read a book about Aussies. I have learned about Quigley by observing and interacting. I can cup his face in my palms, lock his eyes with mine, and see far into his soul. I can sense in those moments he is returning the favor. In times of laughter his wag signals that he gets the joke. In distress or sorrow his nuzzle assures us he understands. If we leave the house without him, he welcomes us back with frenzied murmurs and frantic smooches. Competing for those special rushes of attention, my wife and I may be heard to whisper…

“Pick me.”

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© Copyright 2006 by the author, Lad Moore
"Quigley" (The Quig) is now eight, and is my constant companion on the farm and woods trails.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


My father’s work as a daredevil aviator and soldier of fortune called him to strange places around the world. His cable address, Tailwind, best summed up his spirit, and best portrayed how I remember him. He was forever rushing away, and my recollections of him are limited to the six short years we lived together.

My favorite picture of my dad is the one in front of the Great Pyramids, wearing a fez and a crisp khaki uniform with an abundance of pockets on it. In the photo I can see a frozen swirl of dust behind him, and can almost hear the sound of the wind squeaking across the hot sand. I know that the smile on his face is fleeting—not lasting beyond the click of the camera shutter. I know that because in all my memories of him, I never recall him smiling or laughing. He was a terribly serious man, and his life was as hurried as his death at age 41.

In the time we lived and traveled together, I sailed the world on a freighter, visited dozens of exotic ports of call, and completed shipboard studies under the tutelage of a self-proclaimed Russian Prince. We lived in many lands, among them Burma, India, and Indonesia. Despite those countries’ differences, there was a strange sameness to them all. I found that the land and people were similarly humble, and Americans were viewed with an awe that was almost reverent. That awe is seemingly lost today, as Americans have somehow managed to become objects of scorn in lands that were once hospitable.

When I left to journey with my father to Asia, the Ladies Circle at our church gave me a Scofield Bible to take along. The church bulletin noted the event with the words, “May God’s hand go with this young man as he travels to far-off Bandung, where there is no Presbyterian Church.” The bulletin was right about the scarcity of organized religion, but we held our own services on Sunday evenings anyway. We met on the veranda of our home, a white stucco house with an orange tile roof in a dense mango grove. Many of the families of pilots who flew with my father came to the service, and there was no particular leader.

Like all other aspects of life in Indonesia, my religious exposure was crude and sometimes a little off the mark. Often we just held prayer and then watched westerns—films rented from a subscription service in the States. Other times we read scriptures together then adjourned for a sat¾ barbecue, a peanut-sauce kabob of ox meat and vegetables. The Baptists who came sometimes complained that the services were more celebratory than worshipful.

In my years of travel, I saw many of the great treasures of our world and its numerous natural and man-made wonders. But nothing I saw made my heart beat more furiously than the day we returned to New York Harbor. As the ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty, I recall standing on the deck and thanking God for my safe passage, then whispering the Pledge of Allegiance through the lump that almost blocked my airway. The cool spray of salt water crashing off the ship’s bow was like a fresh baptism to me. I had been away so long that familiar sights were like first-time discoveries. I thought…my how that statue must have looked to the hopeful immigrants who made this trip before me.

I was fourteen when my father died, and once again I returned to the quiet streets and neighborhoods of Marshall, Texas. I found the comforting things still there—the fireflies at night, the red glow in the sky from the rooftop sign on the Hotel Marshall, and the pew at First Presbyterian with our family name on it. It came to me that coming home is the best part of being away.

Despite the pressures and doubts we now feel so keenly, being an American is still the reward from our founders who proclaimed we were “One Nation Under God.”

There’s a saying that describes just how we Americans are blessed:

“We started life on third base, and we didn’t hit a triple.”

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(C) Copyright 2006 by the author, Lad Moore

Image used by license. Image (C) by Sax, Dreamstime