YOU’LL BE A MAN, MY SON
Barbara J. Galasso
“Growing up poor isn’t all that bad, Momma used to say. It’ll teach you an appreciation for the simple things in life.” Looking back on it now, I know momma was right, but I wasn’t too sure about it then.
We lived in a broken down shack by the end of the woods on the other side of town. We shared three rooms; two bedrooms and one large room that served as a kitchen and living room. The roof always leaked, the floors were sinking, the plumbing needed attention, and the refrigerator door was rusty, but somehow we made do. We survived by eating lots of momma’s homemade soups and stews. Every Sunday after church we were treated to our “once a week” meat and potato day.
Besides being surrounded by nature and its wild animals, we always had a few stray cats and dogs while I was growing up. It seems that many of the town folk would drop off their unwanted pets and they’d find there way to our back door. Momma would never refuse a hungry animal. She’d say, “These are God’s creatures that come to our door and we’ll manage. Somehow, we’ll manage.” Every night just about 6:30 or so, we’d hear the familiar scrape of someone’s paw at our door, and momma would feed them the scraps from our supper table.
Then one day much to my surprise, I found among the variety of mutts and tomcats that begged at our door, a beautiful little German Shepherd puppy. He couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 months old. “Wow, where’d you come from boy?” I exclaimed when I saw the little guy. “Momma, poppa, come quick. Look at who’s begging at our door tonight. Can we keep him momma? Can we? “You sure are a little fella,” Momma exclaimed picking him up and looking him over. And on top of it, you stink,” she told him as he slobbered her face with grateful puppy kisses. “One of the first things you’re going to have to do Jimmy after he fills that tummy of his, is give him a bath.” “Sure momma,” I said as I ran to the barn to find some towels and soap and fill up the old tub with water. “And make sure you scrub under his belly too,” she called out. It looks like he’s been rolling in mud.”
We tried to find out who might have lost this adorable little puppy by asking the other farmers in the neighborhood if they knew who might have owned him. No one made claim to him so we were “stuck” with the little stinker!
Spike, (as we called him) grew quickly but not before he nearly destroyed momma’s vegetable garden by taking short cuts on his way to the back porch. He wasn’t on poppa’s best behaved list either after he chased the chickens out of the yard and we all went searching for them to bring them back home again. I don’t know how many times he jumped up on the haystacks, scattering them all awry only to have poppa almost take the pitchfork to him. It was just about this time that most of the other dogs and cats didn’t come to our back porch much any longer. Spike decided that there was only room for one dog in the family and he was it!
One day poppa pulled me aside and said, “Son, you and I need to have a talk.” “What about poppa?” I asked. “Well Jimmy, it’s about Spike.” “What’s he done now?” I asked. “No, he hasn’t done anything wrong today son. Not yet anyway!” poppa said. “However, we need to take action before he does. What that means Jimmy, is that Spike needs to be trained and disciplined.” I didn’t say a word. I just continued to listen to him. “He needs to be taught the difference between right and wrong. And when he does something wrong, he needs to be punished for it.” My eyes grew wide as he continued to speak. “Jimmy, you wanted to keep this dog, so the responsibility to train him is going to fall on you. Your momma and I have too many chores here on the farm to be training a dog. As a smaller puppy, his antics may have been considered funny and cute. Now that he’s almost grown up, they are no longer a laughing matter. Am I getting through to you Jimmy?” poppa asked. I could see poppa was serious. “Yes, sir”, I answered him. “I know it might be hard on you, but you’ll be a man my son when you find yourself doing the things that you thought you never could, but you must.”
So from that day forward, Spike and I had a different kind of relationship. He learned that I was his master and I found that he was very eager to please. Naturally it didn’t hurt that for every good thing that he did, he’d get another treat. I often wondered if he really did consider me the master or if the rewards were what drove him to please.
Spike and I were inseparable. Where ever I went, he followed. I’d take him fishing with me or he’d come along with me when I rode my bicycle down the long winding road that led us to the beginning of the forest. Poppa was teaching me to hunt small game and Spike always insisted upon coming. He was really good about it too. He lay in wait until I made a kill and then he’d charge through the woods to lead me to my prey.
Back home he delighted in sharing my dinner with all the handouts I’d give him at the table. That didn’t last too long. My father told me I needed to teach Spike better table manners and that he was no longer allowed to beg at the table. Spike wasn’t too thrilled with this new arrangement, but I promised him if he were a good boy, he would still get the left overs only a little bit later in the day. So every night before Spike climbed up on my bed with me, I would take out my rolled up napkin and give him those tidbits that he had become accustomed to. He and I would fall asleep with our tummies filled as we stretched out competing for our share of the pillow. Momma would come into my room the next day and find the soiled napkin, but she never said a word about it to poppa.
One day, Spike and I went into the woods ahead of dad. He said for us to go on ahead of him and he would follow shortly. I really wasn’t in the mood to hunt that day, but I always in the mood to take a hike with my dog. We couldn’t have been more than five minutes into the woods when we heard a noise on the path ahead of us. Spike picked up the scent right away and started to run in the direction of the noise. I called out to him to come back, which he promptly did. None too soon, I may add. When we came around the bend, we saw a bear cub caught in a trap with one of his legs twisted in the jaws of iron. The little fella was crying and twisting his furry little body to try and free himself from the agony of the trap. My first instinct was to try to help the baby, but I also knew that where there was a baby bear, his mother couldn’t be far behind.
I no sooner got finished with that thought when I heard a low menacing growl and snort like sound almost breathing down my back. As I turned to look at what I knew would be what my nightmares would be made of, “she” stood up on her hind legs to remind me that I was no match for this “monster” sized mother of a bear! With her teeth baring jaws open wide, I quickly covered my head waiting for the bone crunching agony that I was sure would follow. Just then I heard my dog Spike let out a loud growl and watched as he charged the angry mother. “Oh my God, I shouted. She’ll kill you Spike!” As Spike tried his best to battle with an agitated animal that was three times the size that he was, I heard the familiar voice of my father yelling and screaming as he came charging through the bush. “Get out of the way son, he was shouting. Get out of the way.” Before I could move, I saw dad continue his advancement towards the bear, but as he got closer, his foot tangled in some branches and he fell to the ground. Within seconds the bear charged at him. Spike was already badly hurt and laid bleeding and whimpering on the ground. I couldn’t let this happen to my father too. I quickly picked up his shot gun and aimed it at the hulking mass of flesh and fur that was now on top of my dad. I heard my poppa scream as the bear snapped his arm in two. I knew that my aim had to be good to kill this animal before he killed my father. With one shot, it brought the animal crashing to the ground. She breathed her last breath only doing what nature meant her to do…..trying to protect her young.
Poppa was hurt and couldn’t get up. It appeared as though he had twisted his ankle and broken his right arm. We could hear Spike crying and watched as his body shook and twisted in agony. “Quick boy, take my rifle and shoot him. Put him out of his misery.” “No poppa, not me, I yelled. Not me.” “Jimmy, do as I say. The dog is in severe pain and is dying anyway. Do it boy. Don’t let him suffer any longer. He deserves to be put out of pain. He tried to save your life. You owe him that much.” I felt my heart sink in my chest at the thought of doing what I knew I had to do. I had to kill the best friend I ever had; the one who shared my bed; the one who saved my life. Now I had to take his life to put him out of his misery. It seemed so unfair.
There was no more time to think. I could see the dog was going into shock. He had lost a lot of blood. As I came closer to my dog, I quickly picked up poppa’s rifle and aimed it at Spike. He tried to get up, but it was hopeless. For a very short moment the big dog’s brown eyes locked with mine and I saw the kind eyes that I had always loved looking back at me as if to say he understood what I had to do. I don’t know what was louder; my scream as I yelled out the words “No, dear God. No,” or the shot that ripped through my dog’s chest as he let out a pitiful, sorrowful cry and crumbled to the hard ground below. I heard myself repeat over and over again the words “No, No, No” as I fell to the ground sobbing uncontrollably. I sat down next to Spike and cradled him in my arms while sobbing the words “I’m sorry Spike. I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it boy. I couldn’t help it. I never wanted to hurt you,” I wept as the light in Spike’s eyes grew dim.
My blood soaked shirt stuck to my chest where my own heart just about burst from what just happened. I never experienced a pain more intense or more gut wrenching then when I lost my dog at my own hands.
That happened a little over a year ago, but for me, it might as well have been yesterday for the reality of what had happened brings with it a fresh new pain to revisit me time and time again. They say that time heals all wounds, and one should let go of the past and move on. Dads’ wounds have healed and he’s almost back to normal. As for me, I’ve let go of the past and have moved on, but the wound that remains in my heart lingers a little while longer because the heart is the playground of all my emotions that I felt for Spike. I realize that the bond that we shared can not be broken by his death. I will always have a connection to the dog that gave me so much and in the end that his life was sacrificed so I could go on living. It is this realization that has let me go on and I reminder what poppa taught me just a few short years ago. “You’ll be a man my son, when you find yourself doing the things that you thought you never could, but you must.”
My rating: a dog and a child: (4)
NO PART OF THIS STORY MAY BE COPIED OR REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR!