My favorite segment of the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show”, starring Bullwinkle the Moose and Rocket J. (‘Rocky,’ the flying) Squirrel, was the one called “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History.” In it, a particularly bright and insightful dog named Mr. Peabody traveled with his pet boy, Sherman, in a device called the Way Back Machine to visit historical events to see what ‘really’ happened.
As the only cartoon dog I could recall with a human ‘pet,’ I thought that it would be a journalistic coup to find and interview Mr. Peabody. After many months of research and searching, I found him living a reasonably comfortable life as an instructor in the burgeoning, but very quietly developing field of Smart Animal Humility at the Canine College for Superior Survival in New York City.
His appointment secretary, who I was to find out later on is a particularly adroit and reliable chicken named Elizabeth, called after I had left 15 messages and had sent nearly 100 unanswered emails to Mr. Peabody to offer an hour of Mr. Peabody’s time to me. The proffered time gave me a few hours less than one full day to get from California to New York, rest, get organized and be ready to interview Mr. Peabody. Of course, I accepted. I was expecting something truly out of the ordinary and I was not disappointed.
The Canine College for Superior Survival (CCSS) is located on the 17th floor of an elevator- less old tenement house in Upper Manhattan, just a few blocks north of Columbia University. Not an especially nice neighborhood for creatures on either two or four legs. None-the-less, I climbed the stairs and found the door marked “CCSS … Mr. Peabody, President and Faculty” and entered.
Elizabeth rose from her nest in the foyer, introduced herself and walked me to the inner door, knocked softly on it, opened it just a tad, stuck her head in and softly clucked, “The human is here.” She then turned to me, swung the door open wide and gestured me in as she said, “Mr. Peabody, this is David who is here to interview you.” She turned rather abruptly and the door seemed to close itself behind me.
Sitting in a well-worn brown easy chair behind a child size but rather elegant wooden desk, sat Mr. Peabody. He looked exactly as I remembered him. He smiled warmly and said:
Mr. P. – David, is it? Well, I have never given an interview to a human before as you may know. Your persistence has paid off. Elizabeth simply got tired of listening to your voice messages and my email in-box is full enough without having to weed through your repeated pleas. So here I am and there you are. Please have a seat. What can I do for you, son?
Me – (My first reaction comes unexpectedly to me. The fact that Mr. Peabody is a dog is immediately irrelevant. He is a teacher behind a desk ready to allow himself to be interviewed by me.)
Hello, Mr. Peabody. Thanks for agreeing to see me. I’d like to ask you a few things that I think many people of my generation who watched you on TV have found ourselves wondering about.
Mr. P. – Ask away!
(He leans a bit forward and picks up an old fashioned Sherlock Holmes style pipe in his paws and places it, unlit, in his mouth. He is looking particularly professorial.)
Me – OK. Thanks. My first question is probably the most obvious. How was it for you to be cast as the intellectual superior of your human ‘pet boy’ Sherman?
Mr. P. – Well, first off, the situation was not nearly as unusual as your question might be taken to imply. Francis (the talking mule in movies in the 1950s, Mr. Ed (the talking horse on TV in the 1960s,) Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were all, if you stop and think about it, a lot smarter than the humans they worked with. All that was really different in my case was that I was not the one referred to as the ‘pet.’ In fact, this institution exists to help really smart animals coexist as well as is possible with a species that generally considers itself superior but, frequently, is not.
Me – (I want to keep this focused, if I can, on his specific experience, so I try to draw his focus back to himself and Sherman.)
I’m sure that is true, sir. So was the working relationship smooth between you and Sherman?
Mr. P. – Well, it was as smooth as you might expect from any co-workers where one is scripted to be a sweet numbskull and the other a very intelligent being. Sherman was NOT stupid. He studied and learned his lines and was quite professional really – at least to the extent that his limited human capacities would permit. I don’t believe that we ever argued. I simply told him what to do and he did it.
You know, David – Like a ‘good’ dog who stays, heels, shakes hands or fetches as s/he is told. People love their dogs so long as they remain dependent and childlike in those ways. The pounds and animal ‘shelters’ here in New York are full of mature ‘pets’ who could not or would not hide their maturity by pretending they still enjoyed being petted, cuddled or spoken to as though they were still little puppies or kittens.
Me – So you and Sherman spoke, off the set, as equals?
Mr.P. – I didn’t say that! He was a child playing the part of a not-so-smart child. I was and am a very smart dog playing the part that I live every day … Except for the Way Back Machine, anyway.
Me – About that machine. Since you were and are (you’ll forgive me for using what is probably not the politically correct term) a ‘cartoon,’ there seemed no problem in adding yet another level to the ‘pretend.’
Mr. P. – (A broad smile spreading across his face as the pipe falls out of his mouth and onto the floor. He seems to be drooling just a little and his tongue is hanging out to one side.)
Ah, I’m a better actor that I thought I was! You see, I am not a cartoon at all. I am an actor who was playing the part of a cartoon. Sherman was real too, you know. Just another dime-a-dozen child actor whose parents sat in the wings waiting to get a hold of his pay checks.
Me – Oh! (None of what he had just said had ever occurred to me and I expect my surprise was quite apparent. I tried to suppress it, but it was too late.)
Mr. P. – Yes, it is true. In fact, Sherman loved doing the show. It was the closest thing he had in his life to ‘play.’ The studio was like an amusement Park to him and I’m pretty certain that his favorite ride was that Way Back Machine.
Me – And speaking of the machine, a lot of us kind of wonder who came up with all those imaginative alternatives to more commonly believed versions of historical events?
Mr. P. – (His readers now down low toward the tip of his snout, eyes peering at me over them) Who do you think?
(A pause that lasted 5 or 10 seconds feels like 5 or 10 minutes. We just sit there looking at each other. Finally, I snap myself out of this Peabody-induced rapture and continue.)
Me – Well, I guess that’s about it, Mr. Peabody. Just one more thing if that would be OK.
Mr. P. – Go for it!
Me – Do you have a first name?
Mr. P. – Of course. Since dogs are usually only given first names, the human writers of the show though it appropriate that I use only my last one and the first name business was left, conversely to the usual, with the boy. But since you ask, my first name is Alfie. I was born Alfie Peabody.
Me – I’m tempted to ask you what it’s all about. (Trying, but not very hard, to conceal a smirk.)
Mr. P. – Restrain yourself.
(The door swings open and Elizabeth clucks on in to announce that Mr. Peabody’s next class begins in a few minutes. She then turns and returns to her roost in the alcove, leaving the door open.)
Mr. P. – Goodbye now. I hope you got some of your questions answered.
Me – Oh yes … More fully than I ever would have expected.
(On the way back to the airport in the back seat of a cab, all the questions I could have asked him race through my head. Does he have a family? Did he get paid for his work? Does he eat dog food or people food? Does he stay in touch with Sherman? Where is the Way Back Machine now? But it is too late. Maybe he will let me talk with him again another time.)