I’d never given much thought to what would be prevalent in my personal history. Most people could say their grandma or an exciting basketball game, but none of that would fit into an account of my life. I have lived an average life in eastern Kentucky with a similar story to most 19-year-olds of this day and age. I was born and raised by a mom and dad. I have struggled with the awkward years that have only recently begun to fade. I learned to drive an automatic in an emerald green, Chevy S-10. I learned to drive a cable-clutch standard in my dad’s candy-apple red, 1946 Jeep Willys. I graduated high school – Johnson Central High School, to be exact. I moved out of the nest and into an apartment, but only endured a year, and now I live in the nest anyway. I have no idea what or where I’m going to be in 20 years. I have a list of dreams – sure. I want to devote time to the Peace Corps. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail. I want someday to write an award-winning piece of fiction. Still, these average happenings and yet-to-happen dreams can’t be held accountable for the person I am today. If there is one thing that has remained persistent from my childhood until present though, it is that I have always saved a hefty space in my heart for animals.
My love for animals goes beyond an unhealthy obsession for dressing small dogs in cute outfits or only getting my hamster out of the cage when I was bored. My earliest memories as a child are of my neighbor and me walking a short distance from my house to the Staffordsville Flea Market – better known as the stockyard. Every Saturday, we would walk to the stockyard with five dollars and every Saturday we would pilfer through everything from video games that could only be used on game systems that we didn’t have to pirated VHS tapes – one dollar apiece. We would sift through junk for about an hour and then would make our way across Highway 172 and onto the “dog lot.” There was no pavement or gravel. There was only dirt, mud, animals, and guns. Every Saturday, I would walk laps around that lot until I found the animal that needed the most help. Every Saturday, I would come home with a new pet. I would take animals of all sorts under my wing – ducklings, chickens, kittens or dogs. In my eyes, I could provide a home for each one. Animals were orphans that I could legally tend to – so that is exactly what I did. Just because I brought them home, though, doesn’t mean they were life-long pets. Like the all-too-familiar childhood pet story, I had a beagle that ran away. I found more fitting homes for an entire litter of calico kittens. Once, a stray died of parvo within a week of residing on Blanton Drive. Nonetheless, a few animals have come into my life and not only played a significant role but also were truly my best friends.
There are always pictures of children during major events in their lives – first days of school, birthdays, that without pictures, you wouldn’t remember, sleepovers. I am no different, except that my childhood pictures may include an extra body – Dusty. He was the baby of the house before I came along on July 19, 1990. Some would probably describe him as a beast – 150 pounds and three times the size of an average six year old. I will always describe him as a gentle giant – a pit bull. Memories aren’t as abundant with Dusty as they are with later pets, but some are unforgettable. Every time I let off fireworks for the Fourth of July, for example, I think of having sparklers as a kid and moving one through the air like a person might move her finger across the glass of a fish tank, and Dusty would watch. Things like dogs following my sparkler around made me laugh, and as a kid I was always looking for something to make me laugh. Dusty was my sidekick in cops and robbers. He may not have realized that he was part of the game, but he ran beside me anyway to be sure that the good guys would prevail. Being that I was an only child, it was vital that he functioned as a playmate and comrade. To this day, I am sure that no other could have provided me with more childhood affection.
It wasn’t all laughing the day away, though. Dusty was my sleep partner if I had a bad dream. He guarded the foot of the bed and held down the fort under the covers. With a flashlight and a superb guard dog, I knew no monster could prevail. It would be defeated in only minutes and my bed would remain the symbol of safety, security, and shelter. I’ll flash the light three times if I hear something. I recall that line being common on stormy nights or creepy hours after the scary movie had gone off. Simple things were important then, and that is what Dusty provided me – simple smiles and laughs all throughout the day and comfort when I needed it most. But, hey, isn’t that what best friends are for?
In 1998, my parents and I and Dusty lived in Point View Trailer Court while our new house was being built. In February 1999, Dusty became ill with old age and died a few weeks shy of seeing the new house with his family. If I was looking at this with a strict time-line in my mind, I would just say, “Next we found Mary.” Instead, I’m going to say that as Dusty passed, the option of taking Mary into our lives became a better and better choice. Mary is a full stock Boston terrier – hair lipped and no papers – but full stock. Like any other animal in my personal history, she was rescued. A Boston terrier breeder lived in the same trailer court as we did. At first, I knew Mary as the mean dog next door. She would chase my friends and me. She would snap at our ankles if we came too close to her. She was the definition of an aggressive dog. I just didn’t understand that dogs could be bad, so I inched a little closer to her every day. My observations of the tiny dog continued for days. I learned that the breeder kept her outside and alone. She had characteristics that made her undesirable for profit breeding, so they treated her as if she did not matter. I swooped in. My mom and I waited until the night was quiet, took a package of Oscar Mayer bologna from the refrigerator and headed to Mary’s box on the dark end of the porch. That night we led her to our home with pieces of sandwich meat. Of course, we didn’t just leave the breeders in the dark about it. We sugar coated the truth and said that she had “wandered” onto our porch. They seemed to accept the story, but I believe indifference was the main factor. Without much thought, they gave us the dog that we had already stolen.
Although I had lived in that neighborhood my whole life (we built a house across the street from where the trailer used to set), it seemed as though all the adventures started over. I was older now. I wanted to go out further on my own. I never had any brothers or sisters, and cousins and distant relatives never lived very close so I was thankful – and I’ll admit, amazed – that Mary could play hide-n-seek. I could hide anywhere in the house and sing, Mary! Come find me! She would search the house, behind doors, under beds – she would even scratch at closet doors until she triumphed. If I wanted to take a walk, I knew Mary would want to walk, too. When I decided to become a runner in high school, Mary ran right along beside me. She practiced with me every day until I ran well enough to place in the top five of the Cross Country Regionals my freshman year. If I was going to have a slice of pre-wrapped cheese, well, I never did that alone either.
Instead of being a comforter, Mary was an adventurer – young and full of life – like me. She’s old and gray now. I tell people that she thinks she’s human because she reminds you of a grandmother. She has a favorite chair, a designated naptime and special, softer food (she’s missing most of her teeth now). Every time I look at her, though, I see her as that young pup. I see her as Mary, the crusader of the wilderness. I see her as Mary, the swimmer of Paintsville Lake. I see her as Mary, the fetcher of anything you could think to throw. It’s hard for me to see her as anything else.
When I was 18, I moved out of the nest – kissed Mom and Dad (and Mary) good-bye. I decided apartment living was the kind of living that I wanted. I had roommates – at one point, I had five – but something still seemed to be missing. Then it hit me – I was missing a dog! I didn’t want a dog in an apartment. I knew there wouldn’t be much space, but when a stranger told me, “If we don’t get rid of them, we’re going to set them off,” I didn’t have a choice.
I am a rescuer – always have been, always will be. And so came Doc. He had a couple of different names before I settled on that one, but Doc is definitely the most fitting. Short, uncomplicated and undemanding. As a pup, he was all paws and no brain – a clumsy Black Lab. I think of Doc as my liberation. He is my partner, my cohort, my travel buddy. If you asked me five years ago if I ever thought I would drive a Toyota Matrix from Eastern Kentucky to Maine with nobody but an oversized dog named Doc, I would have laughed. However, that is exactly what I did. I had five days off work from a local gas station. It was summer break from school. I didn’t have anything else to do except drive across nine states with my best friend. Maybe it’s cliché, but I learn a lot about myself from Doc. With Doc, I never have a doubt that I can swim across any river, climb any mountain or walk any trail. Doc has brought me closer to nature than I ever conceived possible. Taking care of him has made me more confident as a provider.
Each of these animals has played a role in providing me with a companion all throughout my years. I am indebted and appreciative. With them, I learned to love and care for life at a young age. I learned that stereotypes aren’t true. I learned that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Finally, I learned that dogs can’t help you find interstates, so you better pay attention on your own.