Saturday, May 09, 2009
Nobody loved kids more than Destry. When I was at the Post-Star in Glens Falls, part of my job was giving tours of the newspaper, and one Saturday, I did a day of tours for Boy Scouts. I didn't feel like leaving Destry home alone on what was going to be a hurry-up-and-wait sort of day, so I brought him along and he would wait in the car while I did a tour, and then I'd let him out during the 20 minutes or so while we waited for the next set of Scouts to show up.
But as they came in dribs and drabs, the earliest would end up playing with the dog, and I kept finding myself holding a leash that disappeared into a ball of Cub Scouts. He was delighted to be surrounded and patted and hugged and loved, and it was the beginning of his identity as a mascot, The Newshound, soon to be joined by Nellie Bly, who also loved kids.
I took him to trade shows where he would go three hours at a crack, gently standing while the tiniest kids all but climbed up on his back, and he'd have likely tolerated that, too.
Destry was the most infuriatingly absent-minded, distractable, foolish dog I have ever owned. But, as frustrating as it was to try to get him to keep up on a walk when he kept finding other things to examine, or to stand on the porch and call him and not even get a head-tilt of acknowledgement, or to try to persuade him to stop whining when he thought it was time to feed the dog and it most certainly was not, there was no way not to love such a kindly, gentle, affectionate knucklehead.
I only saw him lose his temper once. We were walking in a wooded park, when Nellie had first come to live with us. She was, to begin with, only a year old and, moreover, had spent most of her life in kennels as a showdog, surrounded by a half-dozen or more canine buddies, so she was used to a more rambunctious style and needed to be taught to walk off-leash but in control.
She was ranging up a little ahead of us, and we came around a corner and smack into a large German shepherd on a leash with a woman barely in control, shouting "Leash your dog! Leash your dog! He doesn't like other dogs!" The shepherd got away from her and lunged to attack Nell, but Destry was there in a flash, shouldering Nellie aside and taking the charge, then countering just as I caught up and we pulled them apart. He had a couple of puncture wounds, nothing serious, and I have no idea how the shepherd fared because we left. But as soon as the incident ended, he was calm and his old gentle self all over again.
This was striking because I had named him after the Jimmy Stewart character in "Destry Rides Again," the laid-back, calm sheriff who refused to carry guns but, in a memorable scene, demonstrated to some cowboys that he knew how to use a pair of six-guns very well indeed and did not intend to take any nonsense. And then went back to being laid-back and calm.
Nobody ever shied away from Destry, despite his size. Something in his face was so inviting that people naturally felt they could approach him, and he was always pleased to be patted, though he preferred that you not scratch his ears.
Here's how gentle he was: He'd happily play crash-and-dash games with other dogs, slamming into each other and tearing across a field. But the first time I tried to play a wrestling game with him as a pup, he began to cry, and I learned that he simply didn't understand and didn't want to rough house with people. For a breed that is bred to hunt lions, he was remarkably unferocious.
You have noted, of course, that I am speaking of him in the past tense. Friday, I had the privilege of performing a last act of love for this gentle, foolish old dog, whose hips had begun to fail him and who was in real danger of a painful breakdown. He'd have been 12 years old next month, an extraordinary age for a large dog like this, but it was time, and to avoid the decision would have been indulging me, not serving him.
I'll never know a more kindly dog. "Kindly" is an old-fashioned word that doesn't come up much anymore, but he was a kindly dog.
And wherever he goes, I hope there are plenty of kids.
And no dinosaurs. Definitely no dinosaurs.