RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Dogs become people’s creatures of the heart

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

FISHTRAP HOLLOW – My resolution for the new year is to make a little money. I don’t need a whole lot, simply enough to pay for dog food and maybe a little extra for me to enjoy Mexican lunches with my friend Jean.
So I’ve been working in fits and starts on a book about dogs. Once you’ve written a book about Hank Williams and lost money, your remaining options are vampires, steamy romance or dogs. I choose dogs. I figure they owe me.
I ordered “The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs” for my husband’s Christmas gift, which killed two birds. He got a nice, thick red book, and I got to read all the best dog stories. Writers like James Thurber and E.B. White and Ogden Nash and A.J. Liebling all have written about dogs and prove it can be done, if well, again and again.
Believe it or not, the genre wasn’t invented by John Grogan, the “Me” in “Marley and Me,” though he did an excellent job and had a lot of us other newspaper hacks who owned yellow Labs slapping our foreheads and saying, “I could have written that!”
Yes, and why didn’t you?
I might take a chronological approach – dogs I have owned – but then again I might not. My memories of my first blond puppy Maxie are a bit hazy and involve family debates over where the pet should sleep.
The Maxie story ended badly, and in the elements.
No, I think it best to skip Monster and Buster and Humphrey and start midstream with Barney, a big black mutt who was rescued by my sister from an interstate median near Nashville.
She, quite naturally, left the bundle of joy with me. His nickname was Wing-Nut because that’s what his ears put you in mind of after he reached maturity. Barney was gentle, but a fearsome-looking dog.
One year, five sheriff candidates came to the house seeking my vote. Barney greeted each man in his turn. Only one had the guts to get out of his car. He got my vote.
Besides winnowing political candidates, Barney sang in a canine choir with two other rescued pups, Pogo and Albert.
If I threw back my head and hit a High C, all three dogs would join in the chorus, Barney providing bass. Somewhere in this borderline hoarder’s house is an old videocassette of such a performance.
Barney is buried on a hill behind my house, beneath a rock that says “Best Dog.” At that point, the day he was buried, it was true.
Since then there’s been Pete, another Maxie, a temporary boarder named Sam, Boozoo, Hank, Hannah and, of course, Mabel, my own yellow Lab. She was the kind of dog the other dogs get sick of hearing about. Pretty. Pretty loyal. A vocabulary of at least 200 words.
We’d sit side by side on the porch sofa in the summertime, like Hee Haw’s Culhanes, waiting for a car to pass. Mabel would perk up at the sound, her ears at alert, long limbs at the ready. “Finally,” she seemed to be thinking. “Someone is coming to add some life to this dead zone.”
Mabel was too good to be good book fodder. She didn’t even smell bad when wet. Even in death she was considerate.
On a wild ride to get her to the Mississippi State veterinary school before her heart stopped, she gave it up a few miles shy of our destination. If she couldn’t make me money, she’d save me some.
Syndicated columnist RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.