The incident I want to tell about happened when I was eleven. That was a different world and another context, so before telling about the incident I need to explain some things. The first of those has to be the dogs.
When I was a kid, we bred and raised registered, thirteen-inch beagles. We raised them as hunting dogs, but many people bought pups because beagles make smart, playful companions. Others wanted our dogs because they were beautiful. Most of our litters descended from one original sire, Jingles, although there were occasional breeding swaps with other backyards.
Every litter in Jingle’s line included at least one lemon-colored pup. After a while, Jingles’s son, Flash, superseded him, also fathering litters with at least one lemon pup. People paid extra for that color morph, although in every other way they were just as much beagle as the three-color dogs.
Besides Jingles and Flash, our permanent dogs over several years were Gypsy and Kate. I remember when I was four, riding back to Texas from a trip to my father’s hometown in southwest Virginia. Across the back seat of our rumbling Dodge sedan were the three brothers we were at the time, the fourth still lurking in the future. In front, my father drove, my infant sister rode in Mother’s arms, and Gypsy, just weaned, rode on the floor of the passenger side, between Mother’s feet. That hound was gorgeous. She became a champion in the area beagle club, in both show and field. My father trained our dogs to hunt, and when he picked the best for competition, the field trials were the events he considered important.
There was also a succession of semi-permanent resident offspring, most of the names of which went missing in the past.
Voice, whistle and bugle
Dad trained all our dogs. Except a few taken very young, the animals we sold obeyed basic commands. Some, those destined for other hunters, were prepped more extensively. Our home pack, the four and their satellites, responded to a variety of voice commands, whistles, and calls on bugles made from cow horns. A couple of times we went to a ranch in Lomax to collect raw material when the rancher Dad knew was dehorning cattle. Something you may never have thought about: freshly cut cow horns stink. As bugle material, they’re durable, so we didn’t go often. Any quantity we chose to carry away in a trip was a goodly supply. One old horn that no one ever got around to carving kicked around the garage on First Street for a couple of years until someone took it by its self and threw it away.
We were still in the old house on Twelfth Street when I carved my own bugle after watching my father, proudly successful on the first try. I could blow it, and I could make the signals my father made, and I would have blown it a lot more than I did except that would have confused the dogs. That was the first of several homemade bugles, although I never carved another from a cow horn. None of the others ever signaled an animal. At least not intentionally. Cow horns played no direct part in the story I’m telling. They’re here for ambience.
And so we raised dogs. My father had a justified reputation as a breeder and trainer, and he had a labor force of four sons. He had a daughter, too, but my sister never had any responsibility for the dogs. My brothers and I were full contributors, sometimes more, sometimes less willingly. Rain and shine. It wasn’t really onerous, except for cold, wet mornings that started before dawn in muddy fields because those are ideal conditions for a small pack to work cottontails. Something mystical about mud, wet and chill made it easier for older dogs to teach younger ones how to conduct business, and for younger ones to get used to guns. It had to be mystical because thoughtful minds avoid mud, wet and chill in combination. It seemed to me that dog-to-dog training and gun desensitization happened equally well on dry, warm days with light enough to see where you were stepping. That decision was not mine.
When to relax
Honestly, though, very little about being second assistant beagle raiser was bad, and it was a connection with my father that was important to him. That was important to me, because with his children he was often remote and silent. Quick to anger, he was as quick to punish. He was incredibly difficult to know. Most of the time Dad learned about us and communicated with us through my mother, an unreliable channel. There were exceptions. Word play always had a green light. He never met a pun he didn’t greet with another, and he was game if you wanted to keep trading. My brothers and I would join him. We had impromptu Sunday dinner punning rounds, with my mother groaning to keep from laughing and my sister slowly coming to a boil until she wailed at Mother to make us stop.
We wouldn’t stop. And it wasn’t just puns. Any kind of word play was an invitation accepted. Dad would smile in a way that started with his eyes but gradually spread to the rest of his face. He would relax. I would relax. My brothers would relax. We would juggle words. If the right provocation was phrased in a clever way, Dad might tell a story. His stories, when he told them, came to life.
Another route to that relaxation was through the dogs. Dad loved training beagles, and he loved using them to train his sons. Helping with beagle education was always interesting and sometimes fun. Hunting, especially with other dog people, their animals and sons put him fully in his element. I’ve always been more attracted to fields and forests as places in which to sit silently, move slowly, watch and listen than as places to tromp through with guns and a pack of baying hounds, but the ticks and briars that came with the hunt were worth it to be with Dad when he was happy.
Our dogs, not mine
With one exception, everything about the dogs was okay because of what raising them meant to my father. Had I my druthers, I’d have stayed as far away as possible. As you may have inferred, I am not a dog person. I’m not really a pet person, but for the moment, let’s not generalize. I have known a few dogs that I liked a lot, several less special that I still liked just fine, maybe one in twenty that I considered uninteresting but acceptably socialized, and the rest annoying at best. Every one of ours was at least acceptably socialized. That didn’t make raising beagles my passion. I appreciated the satisfaction they gave my father—to be clear, a big part of that was joy in his joy—but although they were our dogs, they were never my dogs. To me, they were livestock you didn’t eat.
Note that I am not describing indifference. Quite the contrary, although what I’m saying points to where they fell along my emotional orbit. The dogs were not my dogs, but having part of their care and training was, on balance, okay. Ours were smart, beautiful creatures with a local reputation they deserved. A little of that reflected back onto the assistants. Besides, not many kids in elementary school could brag about a litter of pups born in their bedroom during a hurricane. That was a few years before the incident I’m going to tell you about, although it was memorable in its own way. The point is that I accepted almost everything about hounds in the backyard as no more or less than a fact of existence. They were reality as the sun rose and set on it in Texas. Ours were hunting dogs. There was nothing to question.
Well, one thing
Except for their droppings. If you put food into a dog, something is going to come out. Never doubt it. The result may assume any number of possible states measurable by different levels and kinds of disgust, but a result will come. And, in the interest of health for dogs and humans, those results must be removed. Then, as now, dog waste removal had to be performed by a person. Fairness, if such there were in the world, would have put the burden entirely on the individual responsible for the animals. That would have been my father, but Dad was not going to pick up dog droppings. Not while he had four sons. Dealing with animal excrement is one of the reasons one had sons. Having four meant that on a weekly rotation each son was responsible for droppings approximately one week per month. That seemed reasonable to Dad. It wasn’t open for discussion.
Picking up dog turds—firm, solid turds when you were lucky—was the one chore in our house impossible to trade for any number of others. No matter how many years of bathroom scrubbing and/or dish washing were bid, no one would trade for a single excremental week. Not one of my brothers hated it more than I did, but not one of them hated it less, either. And woe unto any shirker. Dad’s leather belt meant there really was no choice but to take the designated tongs and a brown-paper lunch sack, and collect every turd dropped by every dog every day until the week was done. Stool not firm enough for tongs had to be scooped with a trowel. Only the runniest could be washed in with the hose, because supposedly it was unwise for dogs to walk on wet, fecally contaminated ground. I always wondered why that was worse than a dog licking its butt or walking all over a turd it had just dropped. There was never a convincing answer. Anyway, hold that thought.
Beggaring wishes with horses
Another thing you need to know relative to the incident is about a favorite old saw of my mother’s: “If wishes were horses, even beggars would ride.” Repeat until threadbare. It was a dismissive phrase to lay on a kid. With five children, she had limitless wishes to dismiss, and she did. Up to the day we’re coming to, there’s no telling how many times I heard her drag in beggars where they were not before. That scrap of wisdom was exhausted before Chaucer went to Canterbury, but she pronounced it as though it were one of life’s great lessons. Her children were a wishful lot. I wasn’t the only one.
It has been said that families are dictatorships ruled by their sickest member. There may or may not be science behind that, but I’ll weigh in with two cents. The sickest member of our family was always Mother. Each of her children went through a major illness that fell outside the ordinary stable of childhood germs (mine was meningitis at age nine), but they were illnesses from which, if an acute phase did not prove fatal, one expected to recover. Mother’s health was never the same after her final pregnancy ended with an emergency caesarean. That was when I was five and three quarters, almost exactly.
Some time between five and three quarters and my eighth birthday Mother was diagnosed with lymphoma. The cancer may have stirred first during her recuperation from my youngest brother’s birth. I’m hazy about when she stopped being fragile from having her belly slit and started being fragile from malignancy. I was outside the information loop until I was ten, when we moved to First Street and I was promoted from eldest younger brother to assistant elder brother and moved from a room with the two younger boys to a room with big brother in chief.
Divide and conquer
My younger brothers and sister became “the little kids.” My elder brother and I became “the big kids.” The big kids had responsibility—and corporal accountability—for a lot of household management. This was true even during times when Mother responded to treatment, or in any case was not as severely ill as other times. When she was well enough, she studied accounting, and then later worked as an accountant. Later still, at the time she was diagnosed with her fourth cancer, the one that killed her, she was comptroller for a Houston drilling company. That’s far ahead of this story. The upshot is that at around the time I’m getting to it felt like she was either bedridden or absent. As my father’s career progressed, he traveled more and more, so he was often absent, too.
A last remark to share about big kids and little kids is that we two big kids, the elder-in-chief and I, the assistant elder brother, were the focus of Mother’s intention to raise gentlemen. By gentlemen I mean those such as she had known and admired while growing up in New Orleans—kind, amiable men of impeccable courtesy and tidy, well-turned appearance. She failed, but parts of the effort imprinted on both of us. The three little kids grew up as hooligans. Weirdly, the elder-in-chief and I were both christened in an Episcopal church, while the hooligans were christened in a Disciples of Christ congregation. Mother always claimed she was Episcopalian, to which Dad would respond that her taste in hymns was pure foot-washing baptist. Her active church-going in La Porte was with all her cousins and the DOC.
At the time of this incident, I was eleven. We had been on First Street for about a year, during which I struggled to adapt to being assistant elder brother, and we still had dogs. Mother’s illness had not yet erased the beagles from our backyard, which it would eventually do. We actually had our last survivor, Flash, until my seventeenth birthday, when he slipped his collar and got hit by a car, but by then the others were long gone. When I was eleven, we still had five or six in residence and young dogs going out, which meant that roughly one week per month it was my task each of seven days to go out with tongs and bag to collect their droppings. This was apart from whatever other chores I had been assigned as assistant elder brother. Having turd duty didn’t win reprieve from any other chore. The power that was, Dad, counted it a task like any other, and it was done to his satisfaction or there was a whipping and then it got done to his satisfaction. And maybe after turd duty and a whipping, it would be time, as assistant elder brother, to make dinner for the family.
Let’s pause in the kitchen for a minute. My mother could cook, but hardly ever did. Much of the time she was too sick to cook, and when she wasn’t, she was often studying or, later, working. She was generally disinclined to cook anyway. My father could cook not only well, but excellently, and the kitchen was his to command if he chose when he was home. After he shifted from managing stores in La Porte to sales for a major corporation, that meant weekends. Week nights my elder brother and I usually took turns making dinner.
Like my father, the elder-in-chief is a talented cook. Skillful and imaginative, he could then and can still mine any culinary influence he has ever met, and he put delicious, multi-course meals on the table. I, on the other hand, the assistant elder brother, specialized in “plentiful, palatable and nutritious, now shut up and go away, I’m reading.” This was and may still be one of my countless failings. Besides not being a pet person, food is not my pleasure. When turd duty preceded washing up and starting rice, the surprise is that the kitchen didn’t implode from eleven-year-old exasperation. I was a kid who wished a lot of things were different. Maybe it was simply that I was a kid and kids wish a lot.
One other detail I should mention is that I have a very poor editor sitting between my internal monologue and lips. Unwittingly speaking aloud my thoughtstream has been a lifelong problem. Observations, quips, criticisms, blunt assessments, all manner of things that no rightly guided person would ever utter in company just pop from my mouth when I have no intention of saying them. Statements I know absolutely not to make somehow escape. At times I helplessly watch them take flight and at times they slip their collar like a canny beagle. Only afterward do I realize that the reason the words sounded so vivid in my head was because they were vivid in my ears as my voice turned traitor. It still happens. I’ll find myself walking the aisles of a store, commenting in conversational tones on people and things while my thoughts are miles away. Nowadays I think people assume I’m on the phone, but for many years it was a recurring embarrassment. When I was eleven, besides wishing a lot of things were different, I was cursed with an autonomous tongue.
Probably the key wish at that time was to go back to being the eldest of the younger kids. That was never going to happen. A cancer in the house has an insatiable appetite for possibility. So much that I wanted to do, that I imagined doing, was impossible even to discuss because cancer in the house ate possibility before it was raised. Wishing was a way of talking about things that were pointless to request. That’s my assessment from this long remove. It was wistful daydreaming.
Even knowing that Mother’s stock response would pile on beggars, wishing was a way of insisting that, her cancer aside, I was still a kid. A kid’s world is rooted in possibility. What one cannot have, one may certainly wish for. Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wishing is minor magic, a spell casting we still permit ourselves. Jiminy Cricket endorsed it. Everyone does it, though many wish silently and no one ever knows.
Young Robert was not among the silent. That had consequences. Not long before the incident, my father sat down, stood me in front of him and said, “Your mother is very sick. She may die. We need for you not to think about yourself.”
I understood. There was more at stake than chores and not asking for impossible things. If I thought about myself and she died, I would share the blame. If I stopped thinking about myself, her chance of survival increased. I got it. That’s what I heard, stated as an absolute. I said, “Yes, sir.”
It was a set-up for failure if there was no loophole. Young Robert was simply not a perfect child. His eleven-year-old’s rationalization decided that wishing was not thinking. I thought I could wish. I would wish. I did. As long as everything else was in line, Dad ignored it, but Mother always trotted out beggars and horses. They never seemed relevant. If wishes were thumbtacks I might get the point. The fact that it was dismissive wasn’t lost on me. When I was eleven, I knew that word and what it meant.
The time that I’m telling you about was no more than a few weeks after I had been instructed not to think about myself. On the day in question, in the moment, Mother, Dad and I had been sitting at the dining table having a “discussion.” Their discussion with my elder brother had been a little earlier. As the big kids, my parents talked to us both about the state of things, about new expectations of us, about how possibility was further contracting, but always in separate conversations, always two against one.
I wanted to cry, but didn’t then. That came later, shut in my closet. As I stood up from the table, I started, “I wish—”
Mother didn’t even wait to hear what I wished.
She got out, “If wishes were horses—” and my editor failed.
“They’d shit in the yard.”
The words were out of my mouth before I thought them. I froze. For a split second I thought maybe Mother was going to laugh, but if that chance was real, it passed in a blink. The full outrage of disrespected motherhood erupted with blistering heat, and she laid into me, her tongue a mighty lash. It would have been a scorching tirade if she had not had to stop to snap at my father, “You’re not helping!”
Dad howled with laughter. The loudest, longest, most unrestrained I ever heard from him. It took him minutes, still fighting a grin, to suggest that I “should” apologize to my mother. I did so without resistance. In her fury she had already lost. I had let slip a vulgarity in her presence, but that was not what impressed me. I had done it in a way my silent, difficult father thought clever. It was a moment when doors close and others open. A moment that changes possibility.
I was eleven when childhood came to a definitive end. So far as I know, Mother never again repeated that phrase. The elder-in-chief told me this past February that he had forgotten she used to say it. Only three people knew why she stopped. Still today, in fits and starts, I’m figuring out how to think about myself.