Sometimes it takes meeting someone in need, before I can appreciate what I have. I learned one day that you can meet someone with more than enough, and that can work too.
It was back when I got my first dog. Now I wouldn't call myself a cat person, but I did not think of myself as a dog person either. However, after my sister moved in with her asthmatic boyfriend, I got her dog, Connor, a beagle mainly, with some terrier mixed in. Connor was a poor excuse for a dog, scared of its own shadow, and had a weird habit of twisting around when it got nervous, always to the right, and would just keep going until it tuckered itself out. I did not know how to take care of a dog!
Living down South, I would take Connor to the dog park on weekends. Summers in the South are an atmosphere all to themselves, thick with the sound of crickets and damp with humidity. That day, though there were several people and their dogs at the park, there was only one other person at my spot, a bench shaded partly by a large oak tree. I joined him and let Connor loose. He tore off across the park to go play with the other dogs. The afternoon shadows were moving slowly across the field that day. Sitting on the bench like he had been there all day the man was slumped back, the buttons on his short sleeve shirt strained to hold in his expansive stomach. His thick pale arms were folded across his chest.
“What kind of dog did you got here”? I asked eventually to pass the time.
The man looked over at me like I had appeared out of thin air, though at this point we had been sharing the same bench for half an hour. He took the toothpick out of his thin lips and used it to wave in the general direction of half a dozen dogs, jumping and rolling around in the dead grass field, though stayed silent.
“My dog, Connor, you can see him over there, is a beagle -mix.” I said. “He gets in so much trouble, always following his nose.” I gave a nervous laugh, new at dog park protocol.
“Now Tonka, she has a nose on her, let me tell you.” His voice was scratchy, and caught a bit like he had not spoken out loud that day. His eyes stared out into the field, like he was talking to himself. He coughed. “About the best nose on a dog that ever lived.”
I smiled, about to give a chuckle when I looked over and realized the man was not joking, his wet, red rimmed eyes turned to meet mine, narrow and serious.
“What makes, uh, Tonka, the greatest?” I said, not sure of what I got into.
The man looked to his left, and then right; the buzzing mosquitos were the only ones paying attention. His short cropped white hair contrasted with his red wrinkled neck.
“Come in closer and I'll tell you.”
Feeling awkward, but I moved over a bit on the old wooden bench.
“Tonka and I are with the Bureau.” He nodded gravely. “Top trackin’ dog in the country.”
“She can track a man through anything. We work on special assignment. This latest case we were tracking a convict from Arrendale prison, down here in Georgia, hid in the back of a work truck and got out.” He stopped and resumed his review of the park, chewing on the toothpick again.
“So you caught the guy?”
“The escaped guy, Tonka here was tracking”
At that he turned a little toward me, and leaned in, like he was sharing a secret.
“It wasn't a guy, it was a woman. Tonka found her in a motel down in Gainesville. But when we found her she tried to run. She had a good head start and once she got on the bike, well the chase was on. It took a half mile or so, but Tonka finally caught up and knocked her off the bike.” He slapped his knee. “Well trained, she didn't hurt her too bad, but I'll say it is a good thing she was left-handed”
“Your dog ran down on a woman on a bike!?” I looked up again at the group of dogs, seeing if I could pick out this beast of an animal.
The man went on, his voice loosened up, he was rolling now.
“I have spent some time training the dog up, but it is a natural instinct, a gift I say. Tonka, what a dog. It was when the toddler went missing that I knew. A little girl, snatched up just like that, from a stroller in front of her Grandmama's house. It was so fast no one knew what happened. Fortunately, we happened to be nearby and got a sock, found in the bottom of a diaper bag and was able to track the car to the hotel where we found the ‘napper and the baby on the 14th floor.”
“The dog tracked someone to a 14th floor?”
Looking sideways at my question he said, “the elevator button”.
“Then pushed the button with her nose and then went straight to the room, and just pointed, head down, front leg up, and looked like something out of old paintings.” he nodded and pointed a fat finger at me. “That's when I knew. The family was overjoyed. That is what it is all about reconnecting loved ones. Yes, quite a nose on Tonka.”
At that mention of her name, a lump just 10 feet away I had taken for uneven ground moved a bit, and a dog stirred, the brown dusty fur had blended in with the field around it.
A fat, round head lifted up from the ground. The characteristic folds of an English bulldog, it’s underjaw up like the prow of a ship, but crooked and bent down the left. Then the dog yawned and then twisted back down.
“What happened to her jaw?”
“It is a blemish on an otherwise picturesque face, not unlike like Marilyn Monroe's mole.” The man stopped talking, and I thought that would be it, but turned out he was settling in.
“When the dog was younger, she worked on a sheep ranch down in Mexico. Rounding up the herd one evening, a coyote came to steal a lamb. Now being a sheep dog, she was protective of her flock, and so had to do what is in her nature. She started 'rastling the coyote, until the sheep rancher heard the commotion. That rancher did the best he could trying to break up the fight, but with the butt of his shotgun broke her jaw. Never did heal right. It hasn’t stopped her, still a mean fighter. Though she retired from that.”
“Retired from herding sheep?”
“No retired from dogfighting! Once the rancher saw the fight in her, he put her up against any dog in the county. Whupped them too! That is when I saw her, and rescued her from that life.
I was there with a friend, not a place I normally frequent, of course. She was smaller then, and did not look like much of anything, and calm without a care in the world. The other dog was on springs almost, bouncing around, the handler could barely keep the dog still to start the fight. Scary looking too, it was a big pitbull, gray and all muscle. The odds were 20-1 against. But I saw something, in this dog's eyes, a glint of steel. So I put my money down, and then the trainers let them go. Two blurs, brown into gray, whirling, tumbling; I don't think they were even touching the ground, spinning in the air like a ball of crackling lighting. Then, quick as that, it was over, Tonka on top of this poor dog, its ears torn a bit, but none too worse for wear." He snapped his fingers. "That was it I had to have that dog! I took my winnings and everything else in my wallet and bought her on the spot. She wouldn't be fighting any more. Since then, I have trained her up, working on her to be the best tracker around.”
I looked over at the sleeping dog again, and felt bad for Connor, just being a dog.
“Well my dog saved a man once, kind of." I started, slowly. "A drunk guy fell the off the house boat at a lake party. Connor saw him and got so nervous she started spinning around and fell in herself! He couldn’t swim either, but her falling in alerted the boat and they both were rescued. "
I looked sideways at the man, tentatively. "He would have drowned for sure, but for Connor!" I said, a little louder, attempting to preserve the Connor’s reputation.
The old man looked at me, chewing on his toothpick. “Hmmm. Saved -a- man? Well Tonka saved a bus.”
"Yah, we were in the back, when the driver, he passed out, a heart attack, and...”
“Grandpa!” A woman called out from the parking lot, and then again “Grandpa!”
The man looked up.
“It's about time I headed out. Lets go Tonka.”
“Nice to meet you, and your dog,” I said.
The dog lifted up from the ground slowly, and then shook itself out.
The round dog hobbled past, then her short wide-spread front legs twisted a bit as she stopped to look at me, and then not seeing anything interesting, waddled past out of the dog park.
I called Connor to leave, and he ran over, jumping up so excited to see me. Needing a friend, I appreciated my dog even if could not save a bus.
Trying not to let him lick my face, I realized Connor might not have been the greatest dog in the world, but was good enough for me.