“Fighting like cats and dogs” was a phrase that never had any resemblance to real life on our Tennessee farm. The cats so greatly outnumbered the dogs—really dog at any given time—that a fight among them would have been a near-suicidal act for the dog.
We were a one-dog family, and that dog was always a farm dog, not a house dog. By saying we were a “one dog family,” I mean we only owned one dog at a time. Other dogs–strays–came around at times and hung out with our dog for a few days at most, but they would get bored with our routines and move on to other parts. Every member of our family loved our dog, with one notable exception that I’ll get to shortly. None of us liked our farm dog in the house because they stunk when they got wet and they often had muddy feet and coats from drinking from the edges of our farm ponds. We did not have a dog house, but our garage that sheltered our pickup truck provided ample space for our dog in inclement or very cold weather with a thick bed of heavy burlap bags.
During my nineteen years of life on our farm, we had only two dogs that left any lasting impression on me. The one from my earliest years was Spot, an energetic little mixed breed dog that was about the size of a beagle but had longer legs. He was mostly white with black and brown markings, having the requisite “spot” of black hair around his left eye. He tended to trot more than walk, and I liked the way he trotted semi-sideways with his ears perked up and his tail in the air. He had all the mannerisms of a happy, optimistic dog that was ready for action.
Spot followed our tractor everywhere it went, and he would follow our pickup until its speed exceeded his ability to keep up. When that happened, he’d turn around and trot semi-sideways back to the house. A few times we tried to take him with us in the pickup to different parts of the farm, but he would become panic-stricken in the cab and jump out the window. After a couple of attempts, we stopped trying to get him to ride in the cab because he was going to get hurt jumping from a truck going at normal road speeds. He would also get very nervous riding in the back of the truck and jump out of it, too.
Once we had to drive our Farmall Super A tractor to Clarksville for some kind of repair at the International Harvester dealer. Daddy drove the tractor for the approximately fifteen mile trip, and I stood on the hitch behind him and held onto the seat and fender. Spot began trotting behind us as we left home, and we stopped two or three times to try to get him to go back home. He wouldn’t, so we gave up and watched as he followed us the whole way to the dealer, including a few nervous miles in the city limits when we were afraid Spot would get hit by a car.
Mechanics later reported that Spot stayed under the tractor while they worked on it, while Daddy and I did some other things downtown. As we left the dealership that afternoon, a tired and stiff Spot followed our tractor back through town and all the way back home, with a few stops by the roadside for Spot to catch his breath, completing a thirty-mile round trip. Poor Spot was simply run ragged and he recuperated under the trees in our yard for several days, recovering to his old trotting self.
After Spot’s demise a few years later, our replacement dog was a beautiful red shepherd named, not surprisingly, Shep. Two peculiar things about Shep were that he loved to occasionally wallow on his back in a fresh, hot pile of cow manure and he was deathly afraid of thunder and lightning. As I have told people over the years about Shep’s manure-wallowing habit, a few other people knew or knew of other dogs that liked doing the same or similarly disgusting things.
The most memorable thing about Shep was in the summer after my older brother Nolen Robert graduated from high school in 1956. My parents and I had gone to Clarksville to deliver several cases of eggs to grocery stores and to do our weekly shopping. Thunder showers came through that morning and Nolen Robert was in our bed taking a nap under the soothing sound of rain on our tin roof. As he slept, thunder and lightning intensified and Shep was caught outside in a pouring rain, terrified by the storm. Nolen Robert had hooked the screen door on our back porch to keep Shep outside, but he chewed the corner of the screen door and tore the screen enough to come into the house out of the storm. Shep made his way through the house, found Nolen Robert sleeping, and climbed into the bed on my side, lying close beside him. Soon Nolen Robert was roused by a putrid smell—the smell of a wet dog coated in a layer of what had been dried cow manure, reactivated by the rain.
Nolen Robert told us on our return,
“I was mad at Shep and felt sorry for him at the same time. So I got up, led him back to the back porch, and sat with him there until the storm passed.”
Our cats were a whole other matter. Ostensibly, they were there to catch mice in the feed rooms of our chicken houses. Rarely did this ever happen, and it seemed a majority of our cats just hung around that back screen door and waited for Mother to throw them some scraps. We’d sometimes see the cats catching bugs in the back yard, or we’d find bird feathers where they had dined on a wren or blue jay, but they seldom ventured far from the house.
Most of our house sat on a concrete foundation, but our kitchen and dining room had been an addition to the old farmhouse many years earlier and the back edge of the kitchen was held up by low stone piers, leaving an opening about six inches high that cats could enter. At various times of the day and night we would hear cats fighting and breeding under the floor of our dining room and kitchen. This was so commonplace that we didn’t think anything of it, but visitors found it amusing.
Once I walked through the house to the back porch and found that screen door covered top to bottom, side to side, with cats meowing for food. Mother was frying salmon patties and the smell drove the cats crazy. They were so thick on the door that I could barely see light between the cats. Around that time I stood in our backyard and counted thirty-five cats, and that was just the ones that were in sight. While I found our growing cat population increasingly repulsive, the worst experience with our cats was one day when I went out the back door and around to the back of the house and came upon a mother cat eating one of her own kittens. That did it for me. Any affection I may have had for cats died that day.
These experiences with dogs and cats have colored my attitude toward other people’s dogs and cats ever since. I still like dogs very much, but I don’t like it when they lick me or jump up in my lap. I like talking to friendly dogs, maybe petting them briefly, but I hate it when neighbors’ dogs jump up on me with their front feet, especially when the owner proudly says,
“Don’t worry, he won’t bite. He’s always friendly. He just loves to be petted.”
Well, it’s not my dog and I don’t want to fawn over it the way the owner might like me to. When owners sense this and look at me as if I’m some sort of defective, I don’t like that either. Such encounters are mildly offensive.
Cats are farther down on my list of possible pets. They seem way too secretive, stealthy, and untrustworthy. I’m into peaceful co-existence with them in other people’s homes. If they leave me alone, I can leave them alone.
These recollections and thoughts about dogs and cats remind me once again how our lives are formed and later influenced by early, formative experiences. This helps explain part of who I am—for good or bad.
I still smile to myself when I remember Spot trotting semi-sideways as we walked along. I can almost see him now.