Noe Valley Voice February 2005

Florence's Family Album:
Our Dog Fred

By Florence Holub

In this essay, first published in the March 1991 issue of the Noe Valley Voice, Florence Holub recalls the many years she and husband Leo lived under a terrier alert.

Leo and I had always been against keeping dogs confined within the city, so when our son Jan returned home from college in Santa Barbara, circa 1965, we were surprised to see a little black shadow tagging along behind him. It was a small mixed terrier who looked like Toto, Dorothy's dog in the Wizard of Oz. As he ran around Jan, he wagged his tail and looked up eagerly. He was such a ridiculous bundle of vitality and personality that we all laughed heartily, and thus he made it over the first hurdle. In no time at all, Fred was one of us.

We soon learned that the young man and his dog were inseparable. When Jan went to bed, Fred followed, causing me to warn, "You may allow him in your bed, but not in ours." It took Fred exactly one week to perfect his routine of putting the whole family to sleep, one at a time, then curling up at the foot of his master's bed. During the night, he made the rounds, checking us out, guarding the manor and its inhabitants.

Each afternoon, when Jan came home from work, his parka pockets were loaded with presents for his little friend. Fred would be waiting at the door expectantly, wagging his tail in double-time, then jumping joyfully to locate the hidden treats--doggie bon-bons, chewy bones, and sometimes squeak toys in the form of hot dogs or hamburgers. He was used to all of these.

One day, however, Jan brought home a toy that looked like a rolled-up newspaper. The paper was called The Daily Growl, and it blared the startling headline "Man Bites Dog." When Fred claimed it and applied the usual squeeze with his teeth, it emitted an almost human whimper, which astonished our pet into letting it go. After a few more cautious tries and cries, he gingerly picked up the toy in his mouth and resolutely trotted out to the back of the yard, where he buried it in the brush.

Back in the house, though, he seemed unsatisfied with his action, so he retraced his steps, dug up the toy, and returned, holding it gently in his mouth and making soft sounds. He had discovered the power of speech, and he used it incessantly during the days and nights to follow, dominating every conversation with his new communication device. Poor Jan was kept awake night after night by the little squeaker. Blessedly, after close to a week, Fred punctured his plaything, and peace and quiet reigned in the house once again.

The experience was not without repercussions, however. For the rest of his days, Fred behaved strangely whenever a mother with an infant visited, jumping eagerly as though the baby were a big squeak toy just for him. Only the bravest mothers paid a second visit.

Still, Fred had many virtues--he was an attentive watchdog, ferociously barking away intruders. He was a devoted, attentive caretaker whenever we were ill, and he had a lively, endearing personality. I have to confess, however, that there were times when he became possessed by a demon, when for just a second he would snarl "Arrff," bare his sharp white serrated chompers, and sink them into anything near at hand.

One evening, a dinner guest reached down under the table to pet "man's best friend," and was subjected to the "Arrff," the teeth, and a Band-Aid. He also received an apology from us, but it was little wonder that he didn't visit again. Even our closest friends weren't exempt. Once, when a longtime friend reached down to give Fred a pat and in return got the "Arrff" treatment, the dear man said, "I shouldn't have put my finger down there," as we wrapped it in gauze. Perhaps he knew that we didn't dare discipline Fred, for fear that he might bite us. If our little dog was dozing, or surprised, he would respond instantly (like many terriers) with his teeth--biting even his beloved family.

But then he would look so sorry, so repentant, that we would invent excuses for him, blaming ourselves, or his sad early life when he was a hungry stray hanging around the bus depot--that place where feet were the enemy and fingers seemed to look a lot like milk bones. Excuses, excuses.

Jan first saw Fred (then known as Freddy the Freeloader) at the Greyhound station in Santa Barbara, which was a good place for a dog to get a handout. He was an appealing puppy, with a pitiable bad cold, so Jan, who had always wanted a dog of his own, succumbed to the temptation.

When Jan was drafted into the army a few years later, the only thing he asked of us was to take care of his dog, which we gladly did. When, after three years, Jan came back, Fred was confused, not remembering at first who he was. But suddenly something triggered his recall, and he became delirious, joyfully leaping and barking. The master had returned.

When we visited Leo's folks, Grandma (who did not hold with dogs inside her home) allowed us to bring Fred in, and she even let him sleep with us as he did at home. Fred just had a way of getting around people.

When our sister-in-law, whose pedigreed poodles were not permitted inside, heard of this, she wailed indignantly, "That flea-bitten *!*#/!"

It was true, he did have fleas, and we fought them constantly--bombing the rooms, vacuuming the rugs, plying Fred with yeast tablets, and bathing, spraying, and powdering his coat, all to no avail. I had the feeling that whenever I sprayed one side of him, the fleas ran to the other side.

One day, I decided to wage an all-out assault. I sprinkled the inside of a green plastic garbage bag with flea powder, then deposited Freddie inside, with only his face sticking out. I then vigorously shook the bag, with a shake-and-bake motion, until the powder was thoroughly distributed over Fred's furry body. This method worked pretty well, but only for a short time.

Fred was also an escape artist. Whenever the front door opened a slit, he would dart out and scamper up the hill, with the entire family in hot pursuit. After one chase scene, we returned exhausted two hours later, still without Fred, and we feared he was gone forever. Just as it was getting dark, however, our prodigal dog came trotting down the hill, like he knew exactly what he was doing. He then plopped down and slept for two days. We had no idea where he had been, but in the years that followed, we could not help but notice how many young dogs bore a striking resemblance to Fred.

In the early 1980s, our son Eric and his chosen, Julie, were to be married at our home on 21st Street, with 30 invited guests. Since Fred was getting old and we didn't want to put him in a kennel, the vet gave us a pill to knock him out for the duration of the party. One hour before the ceremony, the pill was administered, and Fred was carried upstairs for the prescribed "nap."

As the ceremony began, the pill took effect, but not as anticipated. Every part of Fred became paralyzed, except for his mouth. And so his noisy yapping continued throughout the wedding and the reception that followed. Jan, along with Leo's brother Richard, missed the entire affair because they stayed upstairs trying desperately to silence the dog, without a bit of success. Fred couldn't stand to miss a party.

By the time he was 17 years old, our dear old pooch had developed an enlarged heart, as well as hip joints that tended to cause his legs to sprawl out from under him. He would often yelp for help when he was in trouble, and Jan would carry him up or down the stairs.

Early one weekend morning when Jan was away, Fred cried out. I got up, carried him downstairs, then went back to bed. A little later, he began to bark more urgently, so I hurried down to find him lying prone on the rug, breathing heavily. When I attempted to move him, he yelped a warning. I called Leo, and while we kneeled together petting him gently, his heart stopped.

We covered Fred with a blanket and placed flowers from the garden around him. That is how Jan found him when he returned home that evening.

We think of Fred often, and although many years have passed, we still haven't broken the habit of looking down around our feet before rising from the sofa, lest we step on the little dozing dog and get bitten. We do miss Fred, although not his fleas. He was a good dog.