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An Engineer in the Woods, Installment 26: Pets#6; Dog 5, Birch #1

Thursday, January 2, 2020



It seems like Aileen gets a lot of mentions in these pet stories, but she was the first and only, then the oldest and consequently she was more central to many of the pet stories than her younger sister Sean and youngest brother Richard.  All three of Kristen’s and my kids are successful young adults and in our 27 years as parents each one has, and continues to have an equal share in making us proud, happy, and enriching our lives nearly daily in new and unexpected ways.  By any measure Kristen and I are enjoying a blessed and successful life.  If you ask us about our greatest blessing, and the greatest success, the answer is easy – being parents.  Now to this story which begins, again, with Aileen.  Sorry Sean and Richard!

It was Saturday morning when Aileen tugged on my bathrobe as I was making coffee. “Dad.  I want to buy dog food for the dogs.”  My first-grade graduate was already reading the redacted newspaper and approved high school level novels.  All three of my children were early and voracious readers, but Aileen was the first, although Sean probably reads the most today.  
“The Herald News says that there were 80 dogs rescued from a puppy mill, and the pound doesn’t have enough food for them.   I want to use my Spending money to buy dog food.”  
When the kids would get an allowance, they had three jars to keep it in.  One-third to “Good Works” for church and other parent sanctioned expenses to help others; one-third to “Savings” for college and other long-term future needs; and one-third to “Spending” for fun stuff including the ice cream truck, Barbie clothes, fishing gear and the like.

“Aileen, I think that would qualify for ‘Good Works’,” I replied.

“I want to save my ‘Good Works’ to buy a cow for a poor family in Africa.”  Remember a couple paragraphs back when I wrote that my kids make me proud?  It started early.

“How much do you have?” I asked.

“8 dollars and twenty-nine cents.  I already counted…Do you think that’s enough?”

“That should be enough for a BIG bag of dog food,” I fibbed, knowing it would be closer to $35. “I’ll buy a bag too!” I offered.  “I have a 10:00 meeting in Manhattan.  What time is the Pound open?”

“9 ‘till 12,” Kristen answered.  It was 7:45.

“Then let’s eat breakfast and get all cleaned-up.  Aileen and I will go to the grocery store and buy two big bags of dog food and head to the Pound.  Mom, Sean and Ricky will meet us at the Pound, I will go to my meeting and you can all come back home together.” Dad the Planner had spoken, but I beckoned Kristen to come see me in the other room.

I began, “You know… Echo (our Belgian Sheepdog) is almost ten…”
“I agree.”  Kristen didn’t need me to finish.  Most times we think as one.

At 9:15 our family reconvened in the parking lot of Joliet Township Animal Control.  As I pulled our 100 pounds of dog food out of my shiny red convertible (a 1974 MG Midget), I asked a tall, dust-covered, rail-thin worker if we could see the new rescues.

“Cain’t.  They’re evidence and are at another pound,” was the terse reply from the scrawny, lanky-haired animal control worker in a faded blue shirt with the name “Homer” in threadbare blue letters over his left pocket.  He appeared displeased that he had to set down his pooper scooper and broom in exchange for two 50-pound bags of dog food brought by a well-dressed yuppy with a cute kid in a fancy car.

“Do you have any puppies for adoption?” Kristen asked as she stepped down and closed the door of our flower-covered minivan (that will be another story, but here’s a pic of the van packed and loaded on the way to Minnesota – yes, that is a 3 person kayak; yes that is a very full mini-trailer; and yes there are two adults, 3 kids, two large dogs and two cats in the van along with enough food, clothes, library books, and gear for two weeks in the Northwoods!).

Homer gestured toward the building, “Walk past these cages to the glass doors.  Go in and wait for Ernestine.  She gets in about 9:30.”

The first cage we walked past contained an ancient dusty gray Bull Mastiff that had sores on its elbows.  It looked sad and resigned to its lot in its remaining life.  There was a red tag on the bars – I knew that meant it only had one day left.  The next cage held an equally bedraggled Great Dane, also with a red tag. It barked at me and whined. I chose to not look toward the other imprisoned dogs while we continued on our path.  As we trudged past the last cage, I held open the glass doors and our family filed grimly into the adoption room.

The yellowish linoleum tile floor reflected the brash fluorescent lights, one of which was flickering in dying spasms.  The cinder block walls matched the dirty yellow of the floor and the effect was stark, and depressing.  A formerly white paper sign with faded black hand lettering was duct-taped to the wall opposite the door.  It read, “Dogs $100, Cats $75, NO REFUNDS.”  The adjacent wall had three rows of four cages each, each row stacked on top of  the other.  Every cage held a different animal, mostly kittens and pregnant or nursing cats.  The bottom row of cages included a pregnant terrier, a black and white Australian Shepherd pup that was jumping and barking incessantly, and four tan puppies that were curled into a big ball of love.  I looked at my watch.  I didn’t have time to wait for Ernestine.  Kristen and I stepped into a corner as the kids studied the occupants of the cages.

Kristen spoke first, “Australian Shepherds are hard to control, so what about one of the tan ones?”

“I agree,” I answered.  “I prefer a female.  Pick the one that’s the friendliest.”  I looked at my watch again, it was well past time for me to make it to my meeting on time.

Ernestine appeared at the doorway as I opened it to leave.  She was wearing the same threadbare garb as Homer.  She looked tired, bored and unhappy, like she had to snuff-out her cigarette too soon, and hadn’t finished her cold coffee which was in a white Styrofoam cup that she squeezed tightly in her left hand.  She gave me a cold stare, “Dogs are $100, cats are $75.  NO REFUNDS.” 

I glanced at Kristen and she offered to me, “I’ll take care of it,” as I scurried out the door.

 About 2 ½ hours later I rejoined my family on the back deck of our then home in Plainfield.  “Birch,” a round reddish-brown fluff-puppy that was supposedly a shepherd-chow mix was rolling on the deck boards, and play nibbling each kid as Echo watched like a caring mother.  I played with her for a few minutes – she obviously loved people.  Kristen had chosen well.

“I think Birch needs a collar, a name tag, some puppy food, and some toys.  Who wants to go to PetSmart with me?”
“We all do!” was the reply in four-part chorus.

I gathered a cardboard box from the garage, fluffed a couple rag towels from the laundry and put a splash of water into a Cool Whip container.  I set the makeshift dog containment structure in the mud room, arranged a nest of towels for the pup in one corner and placed the water bowl in the opposite corner of the box.  Aileen set Birch on the nest, and the fluffball yawned and nuzzled into the pile.

Ninety minutes later we returned from PetSmart with a bevy of presents for our new addition.  I was the first in the mud room.  Birch was still curled-up like we left her.  I reached down to pet and wake her.  She was cold and stiff.

Several minutes after the tears, and the “whys” had subsided I turned to Kristen, “They close at…?”
“Noon,” she finished for me.  It was almost 2:00. 

“And they don’t allow for any…?”

“NO REFUNDS.  She must have mentioned that a dozen times.”

“Do they have Sunday hours?” I asked.

“They open at 9:00 Monday,” Kristen was about done with this line of questioning.

It was bad enough that the puppy was dead, and the kids were crying.  I had just spent $100 for a four-hour rent-a-dog and I wanted my money back!  I asked myself some questions…

“Do I need to return the dog body to get my $100 back?” Probably.

“How do I take a dead dog back to a place that doesn’t open for another 43 hours?” I checked my Blackberry PDA (phones weren’t that smart yet).  I had solid meetings from 8:00am to 10:00pm on Monday.  Tuesday had a gap from 4:00 on.  Wednesday morning was open, but that was a long time (91 hours) in the future.  I knew the answer.  Kristen has to take the dog back. Good answer, I liked that one.

“Where do I keep a dead dog for 43 hours?”
“Garage?” Too hot…

“Basement?” Too gross.  What if a mouse or something finds it, or it begins to decompose?  My mind flipped to a grade school joke about Beethoven’s music being erased from memory because he was in his coffin “decomposing”… 

“The freezer?”  Why not?  Every once in a while, I would buy several fish for my aquariums or koi pond and one or two would expire almost immediately, but the guarantee period would be a couple days, or a few days, or several days (depends upon the pet shop). I had to keep the dead fish preserved while I waited to see if any of its friends would “belly-up” during the remaining return period.  So, unbeknownst to Kristen, I would put the dead fish in a Ziplock bag, and stick the bag in a freezer.  I usually selected the seldom used freezer portion of the beer fridge under the bar- but that was too small for a cryogenic canine.  The kitchen freezer was a little too public… but the pantry freezer could work!  If I suggested that we should have frozen pizza for dinner that would open-up some space and I could rearrange the bags of frozen vegetables to make just enough room for the opposite of a hot dog.

But you can’t just put a dead puppy in the freezer, I needed to put it in some sort of containment…  An earworm popped into my head, Dead Puppies Aren’t Much Fun by Ogden Edsl.  This is probably how the insane get started – little steps of unusual that combine to become a lot of strange -   I was pretty sure that we didn’t have any puppy-size Ziplock bags...

I grabbed a box of kitchen trash bags from the pantry and returned to the dead dog box.

I carefully lifted Birch from the box, placed her into a white trash bag, and tied it tightly shut.  Then I placed the bag-o-dog into another bag, and tied it as well.  A third bag, and I was convinced that the triple-wrapped dog was hermetically sealed.  I peeked my head into the family room, no family present.  Carrying the sanitary-wrapped former pet, I tiptoed out of the mudroom, around the corner of the family room, through the kitchen and into the pantry.  I opened the freezer, removed two pizzas, two bags of corn, and used my fist to pry a dog-sized opening between the bags of frozen broccoli and peas & carrots medley.  I wedged the pooch bag into the space, and put the frozen corn bags in front of her.  Successfully camouflaged, though not fully hidden, I closed the freezer and carried the pizzas to the kitchen for an early dinner.  No one asked where Birch was, and I didn’t tell.

I awoke Monday morning before dawn.  I selected a black heavy-duty trash bag from the pantry shelves, removed the triple-bagged pet from the freezer, put her in the black bag and tied it shut.  I put the now quadruple-wrapped chilly-dog into the back of the minivan.

When Kristen stirred from her sleep a couple hours later, I asked her if she could take the dog back to the Pound.

“I suppose I can.  Where is she?” she replied.

“Back of the van,” I sheepishly admitted.

Glaring silence of judgement…

“See if you can get the money back.”

Further silence.

Later that morning Kristen strapped all three children into their car seats and drove to the pound.  As she turned into the parking lot, she saw Homer leaning against the passenger side of a rust-eaten, formerly metallic-green Plymouth Colt.  She pulled-up next to him and stepped out.
“Good morning,” she began.  “Is Ernestine here?”

Homer silently pointed past her shoulder to the far corner of the building.  Kristen turned  and saw Ernestine shuffling toward the parking lot, white Styrofoam coffee cup clenched tightly in her left fist, and a smoldering cigarette butt pinched between her thin dry lips.  She remembered Kristen and plucked-out the butt with her right claw.  “NO REFUNDS.”

Kristen was polite.  “I understand.  I just thought you would want to know that the dog died.”

“Whudja do to it?”

“Nothing, we only had it a couple hours.”

“Diddit eat sumpin?”

“No.  We were with her the whole time.” 

“I need to see it.”

Kristen opened the back of the van, and Homer stepped over and nudged the dog bag with the heel of his right hand.  He developed a quizzical look on his scruffy face, reached under the bag with both hands, and set it back down,  “I think it’s frozen!”

Ernestine glared at Kristen, “Freezin’ can kill a dog.”

“My husband must have done that, but after she had died.”

“Husband, huh?” Ernestine scoffed remembering her four exes.   She offered a little pity as she acknowledged the wide-eyed faces of the three smallest Hamiltons peering through the van windows.  “Didn’t go to the bank yet.  I’ll get your check.”  She turned back toward the building.

Kristen addressed Homer, “Can you take the dog for me please?”

“What am I gonna do with a dead dog…? Oh yeah…, sure.”  He picked-up the pupsicle and turned back toward the cage room.  Kristen looked.  The cages that were full on Saturday were now empty.

We never went back to the Pound (although it is MUCH nicer today), but every animal that we’ve adopted since that day has been a rescue. 

Save a pet and fill your life.  It could turn you into a blogger!