Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Boy and His Dog

Rex was the runt of the litter of black German Shepherd pups on a farm east of Norman that housed a clutch of screaming women and water moccasins under a rowboat. The screaming women turned out to be peacocks, but the water moccasin was indeed a venomous snake, only about a foot away from my hand as it flipped over the rowboat while I hoped for a quick spin around the pond. I’d like to say that Rex melded the finest attributes of screaming women, peacocks, and water moccasins, but he was his own dog, so to speak, and, as my mother was to find out, much too intelligent to obey simple commands. He had to do everything his way. She tried to “yard train” him so he’d poo only in one tiny corner of the yard. He would, but not in the tiny corner she designated, but one on the opposite end.

She tried to discourage him from digging under the gate to get out and menace the mail carrier. Instead, he learned to climb chain link, and rather than simply greeting the mailman at the porch, he took to jumping into the mailman’s truck. Finally, after the neighbors complained about the dilatory and infrequent delivery of the mail, she electrified the chain link fence.

The five-foot high electrified chain link fence enclosed the back yard, and it represented a substantial investment, given that the lot was just shy of an acre, and the fenced-in part around three-quarters of an acre.

Encircling the yard with wire that buzzed, hummed, and made your hair stand on end as you approached it certainly worked as a deterrent to intruders.  I’m not sure what it did to discourage canine (and adolescent) malfeasance, but it soon became clear that subjecting oneself to a daily barrage of electric shocks would do something to a dog’s personality. After five or six weeks of daily electroconvulsive electric fence shock treatments, Rex would amble about the yard, and bark nonsensically at airplanes passing overhead and the occasional squirrel, who was staggering in its own right after a jolt from the fence.

Rex would get shocked at least twice a day. At first, it seemed he would get shocked in the pursuit of freedom.  But, if you observed him closely, you’d start to see that he was lining himself up for a shock when things started to get a little bit boring.  No squirrels? No airplanes? No meter readers? No visitors?  That meant it was time to run to the low part of the fence where the buzzing and vibrating was the loudest, and where he’d race along the side of the fence and the brush the shiny, matted fur over his rib cage along the fence.  He’d emit a little yelp, more like a “Yelf-YIPE!” and gallop along the fence. Then he’d double back and gallop the other direction and get a charge on the other side of his rib cage.

I do not think my mother had any idea of what was happening with Rex. She did, however, start to wonder if the settings were too high. Each day brought a new harvest of stunned and temporarily paralyzed birds, squirrels, and even a lizard or two. I had been shocked a couple of times, and I was surprised that we did not see the occasional playmate of my brother, knocked out cold on the ground, after having been “accidentally” pushed into the fence. Young boys can play rough.

For some reason, my mother expected Rex to bond with her after her huge investment. She also expected him to respect her as his master.
It was a dream doomed to disappointment.

The truth was, Rex had no master. Rex was Rex. He would continue to be a loud and a very bad neighbor. But, for some reason, my brother loved him, and it was a good thing he did. Never a sleek show dog, Rex’s appearance was taking a turn for the worse. It was probably due to toll that electroconvulsive therapy (even though he practiced it as something of a hobby) was taking on his body. His matted fur was becoming even more matted, and very thin in spots. His tail was half-bald with crusty mange, and one side of his face drooped and one canine incisor was perpetually bared in a half snarl, half drooling pout.

Paul was blind to Rex’s hideous appearance, or, perhaps he liked the contrast: Rex’s “Beast” was foil to Paul’s “Beauty.” Well, perhaps not. Neither one paid any attention to their appearance, much to my mother’s chagrin.

After a few years, the constant upkeep became a headache. My mother de-electrified the fence. I do not think she ever really contemplated the potential liability. It simply no longer met her personal risk-reward metric.

Did living in a yard surrounded by an electrified fence exact a toll? Undoubtedly so, but it might take time to tease that out from all the other mediating influences in one’s childhood.