Monday, January 31, 2011

Morton the Wonderdog

From the age of 3½ until the week before I returned home from my freshman year in college, I shared my life with a mutt named Morton.  Now Morton was an interesting dog for many reasons, but mostly because she was our dog. That’s right.  To begin with, Morton was a girl.

Aah - the 70s.

From all accounts, Morton was a terrier-beagle mix who liked her Gaines burgers and Liv-A-Snaps a little too much if you know what I mean. She was medium height, white with a brown patch over one eye, two brown ears, and a large brown spot on her back near her tail. She shed like nobody’s business, hated the newspaper boy, and was deathly afraid of fireworks. And even with these detractions, I’m pretty sure she was the world’s best dog. She’d have to be to live with my father.

Sure, as a kid, I dressed her up, hated brushing her, generally used her as an all-around playmate when it was convenient for me, and my mother, who wanted nothing to do with that dog when my father brought home the scrappy puppy ended up being her best friend.  But my father, who brought the mutt home, really had her earn her keep – starting with bearing the name of his favorite boss. 

As a sign painter/artist, my father liked to use Morton as an experiment in media.  Driving home from work one day, my mother noticed the bright sweater someone had given to Morton. Nope. Sorry, Mom. That’s not a sweater, Dad spray painted the dog blue and yellow.  Or the time he used her as a walking bill board to sell herself “Dog for Sale, call…,” in permanent black marker - also true.  

But Morton had a good life. No leash. No fenced-in yard. Just a house, a yard, then a new house, and a new yard, and the ability to negotiate between the two neighborhoods on different sides of town when she got scared.  Whenever we couldn’t find her, we drove to the old neighborhood.  Nine times out of ten we found her doing her “businessman walk” down the sidewalks of town.  She had somewhere to go (lord knows where – we didn’t live there anymore!) and she wasn’t going to let anything – or anyone – distract her.  She was a quirky little dog.
Morton of the Jungle in our backyard.

But this is a story of my wilderness adventure with Morton the Wonderdog, or How My Dog Abandoned Me in the Woods in My Hour of Need!

One winter afternoon, my friend Suzanne and I went for a walk to the playground which wasn’t really in our little neighborhood, but one of those city parks at which you make gimp bracelets and plaster of Paris maracas out of old lightbulbs in the summertime. Because we come from northeastern Massachusetts, we called it Castle Hill Pahk, and that day Morton came along for the walk.  That’s how Morton rolled.  She heeled without ever being taught and while she had a leash, she never needed it.  She decided if and when she would go somewhere. Anyway, my friend and I were about 11 or 12 at the time and even though there was snow on the ground the day was nice and we decided to see what was going on Down The Pahk.


Other than the eerily empty playground equipment, the only thing there was a dumb Irish Setter, Eric, that lived in one of the five houses along the entrance to The Pahk. Morton and Eric passed each others’ sniff tests, so, we walked around all together.  Those of us with opposable thumbs probably attempted to cross the monkey bars, we scanned the hills of the nearby golf course (best sledding in town), shrugged, and headed home. We were getting a little cold and decided to take the shortcut through the woods.  For some reason, Eric, just as bored with The Pahk as we were, decided to follow us. First mistake: don’t let a strange dog follow you.

As we trudged up the granite cliff (really, the outcrop of rock is why there was woods between the two neighborhoods), Morton easily managed to climb alongside us as Eric hung back a little.  I kept thinking he would go home soon.  When we got to a little clearing at the top of the cliff, Eric bounded up the rest of the way and starting circling us.  It was weird dog behavior that I had never seen before.  Why was he suddenly getting so close to us? When his circle got too close for comfort, we starting waving our arms and yelling at him to go away.  Then he started to nip at our fingers. What?!  When we moved or spoke, he started to bark and nip at us.  He kept circling us. We stopped moving.  Second mistake: just keep going like you’re not afraid.

So, if you’re still reading, you may very well be wondering, what the hell is Morton doing during all this.  She stood outside Eric’s circle and looked at us a little while, wouldn’t sit because of the snow, and finally decided that we were playing a game she didn’t understand and walked home by herself, leaving us at the mercy of Eric the Red!

There we were, me and Suzanne, being herded by a lunatic Irish Setter who thought it was a border collie and worse – that we were its sheep.  We changed from laughing to crying pretty quickly when it seemed like the dog would not give up his herd and our toes started to get numb. It was bad enough that this doofus dog had managed to terrorize us, but my own dog has just left me there playing a literal game of freeze tag.  For a moment I had visions of my father saying, “What is it Morton? Lynne has fallen in the well?” but I knew better.  Neither one of them was overly concerned.

After what seemed like hours, Eric finally found our statue game boring enough to abandon us as well. When we finally arrived at my house, I said to my father, “Didn’t you notice that Morton got home a long time before we did?” Nope. After the cries of relief, frantic explanations, toe counts, and hot chocolate, we were over the ordeal.

But not the trauma.

I learned a few things from the experience.  Besides the two mistakes I made and have already shared with you, I learned that I hated Irish Setters and the name Eric. I didn’t say it was terribly rational, but it stuck with me for a long time.  I mean, Irish Setters are about as aloof as Afghan hounds and half as smart – and that’s saying something.  (I had an Afghan hound for a while and not even two-couch Tara – so named because she literally ate two couches – was as dumb as that dog.)  An interesting note, another dog that lived in one of those houses at Castle Hill Pahk was the Pig Dog: my first and lasting impression of a bull terrier – until Rufus. To date, there is no Irish Setter that has changed my impression of the breed. But they’re pretty, you might say – pretty stoopid, I’d say with all the bitterness of my twelve year-old self!

I call this one "Go sit by Lynne in her leisure suit".

Most importantly, I began to suspect that my little mutt was smarter than I was. I like to think of her leaving us in the woods as a kind of doggie decision making: she didn’t know what was going on and was going home.  Yes, she abandoned me but she never abandoned her own senses.  She was a wonderdog, all right, and – let’s face it – she was probably hungry. 

Morton 1968-1983

Why has my blog gone to the dogs?


Kelly Elmore said...

I love this! What a wonderful story, told so very well. Funny and touching and very vivid. What a cool dog.

Lynne said...

Thanks, Kelly! She really was an excellent little dog. After she had the dog euthanized, my poor mother kept thinking she heard her barking. :( Morton really was her dog.

(In other words: I don't think Morton would have left HER standing in the woods!)

Cheryl said...

Dogs and Moms are funny - My father chose our dog because it was a breed he wanted (basset hound), named it a name he wanted because it was HIS childhood dog's name (Tippi)and then let my mother do all the work. Mom ended up teaching Tippi how to do all kinds of tricks, not only sit up, roll over, play dead, but bray the alphabet. I can still hear Tippi howling "Double U." No joke. When Tippi died of a heart attack, Mom cried and cried for days. When you bring up the dog even today (30 years later), Mom sighs and says, "Oh Tippi."

Lynne said...

I'm quite sure my mother still feels the loss of Morton as well. She was like the obedient daughter she never had.

I've seen videos of dogs talking. That must have been kind of wild.