I remember Chopper. I don’t mean I just remember my folks telling me about Chopper, although they told me plenty through the years, I mean I actually remember him.
He was gone before I’d even seen my first birthday, but – whether you choose to believe me or not – I truly and honestly remember him. A pretty nifty trick for an infant.
Chopper was my dad’s grumpy old German Shepherd mix. Already more than fourteen years old when I was born, he regarded me, at first, as yet another interloper hard on the heels of that damn woman (my mom) who had so recently usurped the time and attention that were previously bestowed – and rightfully so! – upon him by my father.
But Chopper wasn’t really bitter about that … he was bitter about having washed out of the Police Academy years before.
Bitter or no, he quickly came to realize that soon – if not just then – I would assuredly become another source of incidental food, the pursuit of which he was very proficient at. If the Procurement of Serendipitous Food Spills had been a course at the Academy, he likely would have enjoyed a fine career in law enforcement. So Chopper and I settled into a lukewarm but easy friendship, me agreeing not to tug too hard on his ears, he offering his solemn promise to be there to recover any errant foodstuffs given over by me to the effects of gravity, when such should occur, as it surely would.
Chopper’s time as a K-9 recruit at the academy was remarkably short. Selected as a young, stout and promising trainee, his obvious (but not documented) Police Dog lineage speaking well of his potential, he was found to be lacking only in ferocity. Quick to learn commands and procedures, a standout when it came to tracking and scent memory, he was a dismal failure at attacking anything more animated than an unattended sandwich. He simply declined to even pretend that he was interested in intentionally harming another living being. Unable to justify continued training expenses on a dog that refused to chew on suspects, the command honchos at the academy declared poor Chopper to be surplus and shuffled him off to Buffalo – that being a breeder who agreed to find him a home where Chopper wouldn’t have to attack anything that moved of its own volition. That is where my dad found and adopted him.
Chopper, as you may well imagine, was not at all pleased by this failure; embittered, as we’ve already covered. But his life with my dad was mostly good, usually safe and always scantly demanding. He went in for watch dogging fairly well and could kick the crap out of any stick, be it natural or milled. He also developed a few bad habits. Perhaps as a salve for his chaffed ego or maybe just because of a passive-aggressive nature, he took to snoozing in the major through-ways in our small house, the short, narrow hall being his favorite resting spot. This was particularly problematic at night as Chopper’s long, shaggy coat was predominately black in color, rendering him virtually invisible in the dark. Like a black hole in the fabric of unlit interior spaces was Chopper in his nightly repose. Inevitably, of course, one of my parents on a midnight jaunt to the bathroom would stumble over him in his obstructing slumber, resulting in tandem curses – one human, one animal. When you stepped on Chopper he let out sort of a half growl, half yelp that sounded for all the world just like the exclaimed expletive a drunken bum might toss at you if you tripped over one sleeping it off in a darkened doorway. My dad tried to shame Chopper into revising this behavior by calling him a “lumpy rug” and “The Damn Hairy Spot” (as well as other more profane and even less clever things), but was unable to dissuade him from this annoying practice.
Being, as he was, ever so food focused, our Chopper was a championship-level beggar, a talent he obviously felt complimented his linoleum cleaning skills. He was so good at it he could successfully con a treat out of practically anyone without making a sound. Just by looking up at a laden plate and shooting out pleadings with his piercing, unblinking eyes, the coal-black pupils swimming in bittersweet butterscotch pools of desperate need, he was invariably rewarded with a cast-off morsel or two. My parents were willing accomplices to this endeavor and rarely denied him regular bits and mites of their meals, constantly reinforcing his panhandling ways. This was just peachy with Chopper.
As seriously as Chopper took his job as the first responder to all floor related food emergencies, he was generally pretty much aloof to the rest of the daily affairs of our little tribe. He could normally be easily enticed into a game of “Half Fetch” (wherein the human tossed a stick and Chopper promptly ran it down and refused to return it) and did seem to – uncharacteristically – enjoy the odd bout of play fighting with my dad, but usually he was quite contented to fulfill his other vitally important role as a lumpy rug, always with the kitchen floor directly in his sight line.
The only other exceptions I ever knew of to Chopper’s nearly Gandhi-esque passivity were his penchant for tormenting the dogs next door and his extraordinary willingness and very considerable ability to stalk, capture and execute mice.
A couple, three times a week, Chopper would stroll up and down the backyard fence line until the dogs next door caught his scent and attacked the fence in a wild frenzy, snarling and barking wildly, scrambling all over each other trying in vain to get at him. He’d amble back and forth a while, silently and without the slightest trace of interest in their antics, until he eventually tired of the game. Meanwhile the neighbor mutts would rage apoplectically on the other side as Chopper dispensed his final insult. Usually picking a spot where the fence boards were more widely spaced, he would lift his leg and deliver his signature stream into the crack, thereby assuring that he marked not only the boundary to his territory, but one or more of those three idiot creatures just beyond it as well.
As a mouser, Chopper was without peer. He could roust out and exterminate more vermin than any half-dozen cats combined. When the cool autumns began to give way to winter, the dropping temperatures tended to drive the mice indoors in search of both warmth and sustenance. One thing Chopper would not, could not abide was another non-human animal screwing with his food. When we had other dogs in the house Chopper would jealously guard his bowl if even a single chip of kibble remained therein, just as if the slimy little nugget was pure Yukon gold. So when the refugee rodents began to surreptitiously purloin his feed, he set about to systematically eradicate the little felons one by one. Relying on acute hearing and his unfailingly steadfast nose, he rooted them out from behind the furniture and fixtures, swatted them mercilessly with his wide, strong paws to stun, and then treated them to the quick and certain death of his massive jaws. Chopper was more effective – and entertaining! – than any mechanical trap ever devised, old or new. Chopper was the better mousetrap.
Now, it would be absurd for me to expect that you’d believe all the preceding anecdotes were the actual memories of a pre-annual child, and of course, they are not. The part about Chopper and I agreeing to our respective roles in our relationship, for instance, is pure whimsy, to be sure. But somewhere within it, as within all the others, lies a tiny seed … a minute, and sometimes greater, glimpse … a flash of a real memory that prompted me, as I grew older, to ask my parents about what I was seeing in my mind’s eye. The stories and flourishes of prose are theirs, certainly, but the impelling memories are mine and, like Gollum’s ring, they are precious to me.
We buried Chopper in the back yard, well away from the securely cross-fenced vegetable garden my parents tended there, off in the corner by the Plum tree. That event is one of the most vivid of my early memories: My dad, weeping, down on his knees, patting the freshly turned black earth, my mother – my new brother in her arms – looking on. I in my stroller, oblivious to the image being seared into my mind. And heart.
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while – even now, nearly thirty years later – I trip on something unseen in the hall as I stumble to the bathroom late at night. By the time I get the light on to see what it might have been, the only evidence of the experience I’m able to discern is the sound of an irritated half growl, half yelp echoing away in my mind.