Monday, February 06, 2006

I miss you, Jake

Jake Chapel, Loyal Schnauzer and Nearly Perfect Puppy

Our first puppy was named Jake, the runt of his litter, but a Schnauzer with a giant heart. Jake was born in Maine and, therefore, a legitimate Mainer, unlike us, his parents from “away.” In my opinion, Jake sensed this distinction. When we walked down to Al’s Country Store and the West Poland, ME post office, Jake was master of his domain. In fact, at Al’s Jake was legendary for his attitude. In the morning, Big Al and the boys would sit around shootin’ the shit. So, one day Jake and I mosey in to pick up a paper. Al likes to talk tough, so he observes that Jake would be perfect for helping clean up the store. “Why I’d stick a broomstick up his ass and mop the floor with that fur ball.” The boys chuckled and Jake gave Al a withering stare. I swear he understood him. Then, with great deliberation, Jake walked over to the wire news rack, lifted his leg, and peed on it. This act became legend in West Poland as the day Jake shut Al’s mouth faster than a steel trap. Of course, I had to buy all the wet papers, but they were well worth the money. Jake had made a statement in a most dramatic way.

Over at the post office, a tiny shack with barely enough room for a wall of p.o. boxes and a service counter, Jake was known by name by most everyone who picked up mail shortly after Craig, the Postmaster, sorted the mail—around 10 am. Craig pretended to be outraged at how spoiled Jake was. Of course, it has to be said that Craig seemed to be outraged by just about everything. Still, I gradually became aware of Jake’s tendency to goad good old Craig. I admit I was guilty of aiding and abetting this behavior by lifting him up to the counter so Jake and Craig would be face-to-face. Jake liked to irritate Craig by licking his finger sponge or grabbing his counter pen and yanking the chain that secured it to the counter. Whatever Jake did, Craig would get up his bluster and state loudly, “Jake, that’s government property. I can have you put away for that.” This was a regular routine guaranteed to please a puppy. Jake would woof and growl in response. And everyone who witnessed the exchange would laugh, mostly at Craig because he was such a standard product of the U.S. Postal Service, constantly disgruntled and a genuine asshole.

Growing up in Maine with a big yard surrounded by a horse field was puppy heaven. Jake loved the smells and the constant variety of wildlife surrounding him. One day, during Jake’s puppy-hood, a truck carrying chickens to the egg farm up Megquier Hill Road rumbled by. Jake lifted his head, opened his mouth and let out a howl, a sound I had never heard him make. Clearly, the aroma of chickens sent him to some higher level of consciousness, stimulating the wild instincts of hunting dog. I never saw this behavior again. Of course, Jake loved the horse field, which was “off-limits” to him, but protected only by a flimsy old, falling-down, split-rail fence. So whenever he could, Jake would sneak off into the horse field and see what he could “Schnauzer up.” Almost always, that would be a horse bun. So when we would yell at him and tell him in-no-uncertain-terms that he better get his fuzzy ass back in his own yard, well, Jake would come running with the odoriferous prize in his mouth, hopping like a bunny and daring us to chase him. Disgustingly funny. Then there was fall and leaf raking. We used an old bedspread as a tarp and piled the leaves on it for transport to a pile behind the garage. Jake loved “attacking” the bundled leaves thrown over my back. He would bark with joy, growl like a wild animal, jump and nip at the bedspread and generally go nuts over the whole process. After dumping the leaves, Jake would race back to the yard and get ready to interfere with the next pile. Pure joy it was.

Like all dogs, Jake loved walks. We had our morning run down to the store and the post office. Most of the time, that included a stroll down the dirt path to the boat ramp on Tripp Lake, a great place for the Jakester to slurp up some yummy lake water. In the afternoon, we’d head up the hill, past the apple farm and orchard to the old white church and the cemetery. Jake loved this because he would often get the privilege of running free around the grave markers, chasing birds and romping around with total inhibition. Should anyone chance to walk into the cemetery, Jake would take notice and give a thorough bark-up. Wherever Jake was, he considered himself boss dog. Occasionally, we’d take a really long walk down the Lake Road and check out the abandoned trailers and junk cars. That was always a treat and got the boy tired out so he would flop down upon his return and snuzzle down for a doggie nap, the picture of relaxation and pooped-out pleasure.

As much as he loved the outdoors, Jake was essentially a civilized Schnauzer and made our house his home. One day we purchased a beanbag for lounging on the floor in front of the TV. Jake took one look at it and decided it was the perfect bag for him. It never served its intended purpose. And when you plopped on Jake’s bag, you were in for a tussle over property rights. Jake’s favorite place was the sun porch, a 3-season room looking out over the backyard and the horse field. We had these comfy padded bamboo swivel chairs in that room but, in reality, they were always Jake property. He would spend hours sitting and watching interspersed with snoozing with his head hanging off the edge of one or the other chairs. The one thing Jake never mastered in his house was the hard wood steps leading to the upstairs bedrooms. The stairs were slippery for doggie paws and he sensed the danger. As a result, Jake expected to be picked up and carried up and down those stairs. Of course, it goes without saying our bed was Jake’s bed. When I got up in the morning, Jake would go to the top of the stairs and wait. When I was ready, he would hop in my arms to be carried downstairs. Perhaps this is how he became known as “the luxury pup.”

I raised Jake from a shoebox size puppy since I was working from a home office at the time. Janet was working at a company in Lewiston, so she would head off to work every day. This led to rumor and speculation in the gossip-driven village of West Poland. There was talk about “the guy with the little dog who doesn’t work and suspicions that I might be a lazy bum who makes his wife support him, but that’s another story altogether. I was a freelance advertising man, making my living writing ad copy and producing marketing materials for various companies. It just looked a bit suspicious to the no-tech redneck crowd we called our fellow citizens.

Jake quickly became an “office dog” and would serve as my timekeeper for breaks and attention. His need for attention often reflected how busy I was. If a phone conversation went a bit too long for his taste, Jake would select a particularly loud squeaky toy and create his own style of Muzak, much to the amusement (usually) of my clients. Whenever possible, I would take Jake with me on client service runs that I knew would be short. I had this baby blue VW Beetle I used whenever Janet was using the van or her car was in the shop. One particularly blustery winter day, Jake and went on a run down to Gorham to drop off a newsletter design for approval. It was cold and the V-Dub just wasn’t making much heat, being air-cooled. So Jake, no dummy and not one for shivering, climbed into my lap and before I knew it was zipped into my jacket. His little head stuck out and looked around while I tended to the driving. This was probably not legal in Maine, but what the heck? There is nothing like a warm puppy snuggled in your jacket. Unfortunately, from this moment on, Jake preferred to ride in my lap, much to my chagrin and the amused mocking of the rough‘n tumble Mainers.

Like I said upfront, Jake was the runt of his litter. He was rather small for a Schnauzer, even though he was a purebred AKC Miniature Schnauzer. Anyway, he had his medical issues, such as the lump that grew around his chest. The vet over in Mechanic Falls recommended removing it surgically. We agreed and later concluded his surgical work was not much better than a butcher sewing up a stuffed turkey. So Jake had this ugly surgery and earned himself a scar. It wouldn’t be the last of his medical trials and tribulations, but he had heart and courage, like all dogs do. He wanted to be strong and live for the sake of his parents—his pack in dog-think.

During his Maine childhood, Jake had limited contact with other dogs but our friends, the Michies, introduced Milo, their Rotweiler puppy to Jake and they became great friends. Of course, even as a puppy, Milo was much larger than Jake. Still, Milo recognized Jake as the older dog and respected him. They had a hilarious routine where Milo would tease Jake with a stick or ball and then take off with Jake in hot pursuit, barking and snarling. Finally, Milo would stop and Jake would run in circles around him. They had great fun together.

The advertising work eventually led to an offer from a client, but it meant a move down to Stamford, CT. Not knowing if this would be a permanent gig, we decided to remain Maine residents and keep our house. I found an apartment in Stamford and convinced Tony the landlord to allow Jake to be with me. So, Jake and I became 600-mile commuters, living and working in Stamford and getting back to Maine as often as we could. It wasn’t easy—for Jake or for me, or for Janet for that matter. But, the deal was intended to rake in some much-needed funds for retirement.

I made it a habit to head home at lunch, a very feasible plan since I was only 6 miles away from the apartment. So Jake and I would have lunch and take a walk. Then, I’d head back to work for the afternoon. Jake adopted a seat I set up in my small studio room. He could observe all the action on Broad Street, a major route in Stamford. Lots to see and take in. I was impressed with how quickly and easily he adapted to the new routine. I started referring to him as “the nearly perfect puppy” since he hardly ever put a paw wrong.

Not everyone thought Jake was perfect, though. Anyone who walks a dog knows that there are people who loathe dogs and fear dog poop as if it were cancer. With a regular walking route, you become aware of those who stare at you with hatred almost hoping your dog poops on their property so they can go ballistic. But there are the “lurkers” as well. These are dog haters that seethe silently in the shadows and behind curtains. Since I picked up after Jake, I made it a practice to give the “shit” right back to the harassers. When a drunk behind the wheel of a pickup truck questioned whether I really picked up Jake’s poop, despite seeing my swaying bag of bumstuff, I finally tossed my baggie into his truck. That led to the Stamford Police tracking us down and giving us a lecture and a ticket for “breach-of-peace.” You can’t win against the NIMBYs.

During our Stamford period, Jake went everywhere with me. We loved Scalzi Park, a giant recreation area with lots of romping room. We walked the Broad Street neighborhood and the grounds of Stamford Hospital (until Security kicked us out). All this adventure must have exposed Jake to germs and viruses because he developed a frightening intestinal infection with internal bleeding. I got him to the vet just in time and he pulled through, but I thought Jake might be a goner. Later, he came down with an ear infection that spread to his outer ears. It was very painful, but Jake was a trooper and let me doctor him. He knew I was worried about him and trusted me to help him. But these episodes took their toll. Jake was growing older and slowing down.

His age and attitude showed when my friend Kathryn got a Westie puppy named Fiona. Being a puppy and a very active breed, Fiona wanted Jake to play and romp with her, but Jake was not very interested. One visit involved Jake sitting in the middle of Kathryn’s living room with Fiona racing around him. As she made frantic circles around him, he would track her with his head and give her a “woof” at around 11 o’clock position and then keep tracking her. This went on for numerous circles until Fiona was actually dizzy.

But, make no mistake, Jake and Fiona were friends. Kathryn and I became doggie sitters whenever we had to travel. She would take in Jake and I would go over and stay with Fiona (accompanied by Jake, of course) when she traveled on business. It was always fun, especially taking walks with the two terriers.

Doggy sitting was great management training, especially when it came to making sleeping arrangements. Jake is used to sleeping with me. Fiona is used to sleeping on Kathryn’s bed. I’m supposed to sleep on Kathryn’s bed. Thinking like a dog, I realized this was a recipe for disaster, or at least a territorial confrontation. So, I looked around and found Kathryn’s guest room and camped out there. I tossed my sleeping bag on the bed so Jake would recognize it as ours and got Fiona’s blankey from Kathryn’s room and spread it out on one side. I positioned myself in the middle. Jake on one side. Fiona on the other. A doggie sandwich. Instant satisfaction! Both pups settled in, molded to my body and we slept like…puppies.

There is nothing more comforting than a concerned doggie. After all, in a dog’s mind, his master is GOD. I found out just how sensitive a dog can be to illness and how empathetic they can be. My illness was a kidney stone, not only a painful condition, but also one that reduces you to pathetic whimpering. So there I was in bed, curled up in fetal position, trying to endure the grinding/squeezing/plowing feeling of the stone. Jake was right there. He positioned himself on the other pillow and focused on me intently, occasionally licking my forehead or ear. When I would groan, he would change position, trying to get closer, as if to absorb my discomfort and take it on himself. I mumbled stuff to him—just what I don’t remember—and he produced “wimpy” sounds, a unique sound meaning he was there and loving me.

I took Jake to the office a couple of times. The first trip was a quickie. Had to pick up some stuff I forgot and check on a file I needed to send to a magazine. I shut the door to the office so Jake wouldn’t be tempted to explore. He sniffed around and got up on one of the guest chairs. The telephone rang—odd for a Saturday—so I answered it. It was Ray from Moncton, my ad guy friend. He was as surprised to hear my voice, as I was to hear his. While we were talking, Suzanne—my boss—walks down the hallway and sees Jake. So she opens the door, waves to me and pets Jake. Then, she asks him if he would like to see her office. Jake was off the chair before she finished the question. I knew he’d never make it to her office. Sure enough, Jake decides not to follow and takes off down the hallway. I told Ray that Jake was on the loose and I had to find him. So I rang off and headed after my boy. I found him. Jake had found the president’s office, which was open because the guy lived for work, weekends included. The worst had happened. Jake had just taken a huge dump on the floor. Luckily, the prez was down a couple of offices talking to another workaholic suck-up. I grabbed some tissues from the box on the big desk and got the mess cleaned up. Fortunately, he laid some solid Lincoln Logs so no harm done. Just then, the pres walks in with me holding a stinkin’ wad of doggie poop.
“Hi Bert,” I said. Thinking quickly, I said, “Bert, I’d like you to meet my son, Jake.” He had a weird look on his face that I figured meant he was picking up on the awful odor in his office. Fortunately, his phone rang and we were able to make an exit without having to make any explanations. It was a close call.

We spent seven years in Stamford. Jake and I, roomies in an attic studio apartment that was more doghouse than executive pad. Jake was getting older. He still loved his walks, but he preferred lap time to playing. So, I’d put on my jazz CDs and Jake would climb into my lap. I’d have a Jack Daniels on the magazine stand and one of my favorite periodicals open for reading. It was perfect. It was our routine. I’d get drunk just about every night that seventh year of the Stamford period. Jake would keep me company until we hit the sack. Then he would mold himself to my side and we’d drift off to dreamland. Idyllic scene—except I had become a drunk and Jake was an old man.

My employer brought reality back into the picture when I was laid off during a reorganization and purge in preparation for the corporate office moving to Toronto. This was a rough time. My marriage was on the rocks due to the Stamford distance from Maine and I knew I was an alcoholic. My dad died an alcoholic so I knew what was in store for me. As much as I loved my friend Jack Daniels, I kicked the booze out and quit cold turkey. Once again, Jake had my back while I dried out and dealt with the demons of withdrawal. He was right there: my very best friend and soul mate.

I got the pink slip late in the month and we moved out within days of the event. We headed back to Worcester where I bought a home. It was my old stompin’ grounds, but new to Jake. But, being “Mister Adaptable,” he quickly sniffed out the neighborhood and made friends with kids. It brought back some youth and vigor, by my eye. He seemed quite happy, especially since I was home with him trying to get a freelance writing business started.

I really don’t know what happened to Jake at the end. Upon reflection, it seems he had some kind of neurological event because he became lethargic, frequently nauseated and increasingly unresponsive. We took him to the vet. She ran tests and tried some meds, but to no avail. I was sitting in my Lazy Boy watching Jake lying on the living room floor when he started convulsing. It was very upsetting. I scooped him into my arms and took him to the vet. I called Janet on the way. She met me there. It was clear Jake was ready to check out. We signed the papers, kissed and hugged him and left in tears. A few weeks later, we received his ashes in a brass tin. I placed them on the mantel so he could be with us forever.

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