I was an only child, born after my parents had been married for over nine years. Because I had polio three months prior to my fourth birthday and spent nearly a year recuperating at Riley Hospital in Indianapolis, many aspects of my early childhood development were delayed, including the making of close friendships with the neighborhood children in the “East End” of Elnora where we lived. As I grew a bit older and it became easier for me to walk, I played with the kids who lived nearby, but when it was time to go in for the evening, I was alone except for my parents or grandparents depending upon where I was sleeping that night.
Since I didn’t have a brother or sister, I wanted a pet badly, one that I could call my own. My dad had a beagle named “Rowdy” that he kept tethered to a chain out near the old “pigeon house,” but I was strictly warned that Rowdy was a hunting dog. According to my father, Emerson Johnson, if I played with Rowdy, it would ruin him as a hunter. I never understood why, but I didn’t dare go against my dad’s instructions. So, Rowdy ate outside, slept in his doghouse outside, and was never allowed in the house.
My grandparents had an old gray female cat that they simply called “Mother” and she was always getting pregnant (or should I say “having babies” since “pregnant” was a no-no word in our house in the fifties). I never knew what happened to “Mother’s” babies because they always seemed to disappear shortly after they were born. Maybe the “whey ditch” behind my grandparents’ house knew the secret of the missing kittens, but it wasn’t telling.
Then the unthinkable happened; one day a couple of friends and I were in the smoke house on my grandparents’ property and there was “Mother” in the process of giving birth. About the same time, my grandmother appeared and you’d think that we did something horribly wrong. She made us leave immediately rather than stay and watch.
I was so naïve, I wasn’t real sure what was happening, but my friends gave me the details. A few days later when “Mother” was nursing her babies, I saw that one of them was calico-colored, and I begged my parents for the kitten. To my surprise, they let me have it and “Calico” and I soon became pretty good friends, or at least as much as you can be friends with an independent cat.
My parents even let Calico sleep on my bed. Then, after a year or so, my dad came in one morning before he left for work and told me Calico had been hit by a car and killed. I was naturally upset, knowing my first and only pet had been taken while Rowdy was still enjoying the good life on his chain outside.
To make up for the loss of Calico, I was given another kitten which we named “Boots.” He was a black cat with four white feet and a white splotch on his face, but we soon found out that he was even more independent than Calico. He apparently ingested some rat poison that a neighbor had placed around her home, and began to die a horrible, painful death. His wailing and suffering became so terrible that my dad had to “take care of the situation.”
So, once again, I was alone with no pet of my own. Then, one Sunday afternoon as I was lying on my stomach on the floor watching TV, my Aunt Audrey & Uncle Kewp from McCordsville came in through the back door. Engrossed in my program, I barely paid attention to them until I felt something quivering by my side. I looked down and saw a small black dog lying beside me. He was extremely nervous, and my aunt told me that he was nine months old, was a full-blooded Dachshund, and had been abused by his former owners.
My aunt and uncle sold registered dachshunds as a “hobby” and they had sold him to a family who couldn’t take good care of him and treated him poorly. My aunt reclaimed him and decided to give him to me. The dog already had a name, but they said I could rename him if I wanted, so I called him Willie. He and I were two broken boys who soon knew we needed each other.
It took a long time for Willie to lose his nervousness, but when he did, Willie was certainly “my” dog. He and I played together, took walks together, and slept together. Although he had those short little legs, he was quite an athlete and could catch just about any ball I’d throw to him.
When I went to college, Willie was always there waiting for me when I returned and it was like I had never left. We were buddies all over again. I took a class at the “Purdue extension” in Indianapolis during the summer of 1962 and stayed with my other aunt and uncle, Bill & Kathryn. They also had a dachshund, so one week Willie accompanied me so the two dogs could play while I was in class.
At the week’s end, Willie and I headed home in my old ’56 Dodge with him in his favorite spot on the back seat. As we left Spencer on State Road 67 and neared the town of Freedom, Willie began to whine. I assured him we’d be home soon and tried to calm him, but Willie wasn’t homesick, he had a more personal problem that became all too apparent just north of Freedom. I detected a foul odor and when I positioned the rear-view mirror to see into the back seat, I realized that Willie had done what all dogs do, but you hope they do it outside.
I pulled the car over at the first opportunity, into a little roadside rest area that had a picnic table and a trash barrel nearby. I held my nose, put Willie’s leash on him, and tied him to the picnic table. Luckily, I had an old blanket in the car which I used to clean out the back seat the best I could and threw the entire soiled mess into the barrel. I made Willie ride the rest of the way home with me on the floor of the front passenger area. It was a warm day, so I was able to keep all four car windows down the rest of the way to Elnora.
I had a “Fingerhut” catalogue at home, and since the internet was at least thirty years in the future, I placed a mail order for a set of green and white nylon seat covers to hide the disgusting spot on the back seat. The odor was gone, but the stain wouldn’t come totally clean, no matter how much I scrubbed. Where’s the OxyClean when you need it? Needless to say, that was Willie’s last trip to Indianapolis.
Beginning with that unforgettable day in 1962, and every time I drive that stretch of Highway 67, I would always laughingly point out the spot that will forever be known to me, my wife, and our kids as the place where “Willie pooped.”
My father died of lung cancer in February, 1963. I came home for the funeral, but had to return to classes at Purdue as soon as I could. Luckily, in addition to her Elnora friends, my mother also had Willie there with her for comfort when she was alone.
Near the end of the spring semester in 1963, I came home for the weekend to see my mom and Willie, and also to get some laundry done. Before I left to return to Lafayette, I decided to wash my car. I pulled it into the yard on the south side of the house, a friend and I got out the hose, and we started washing the old Dodge. When we finished the job and put everything away, I loaded my suitcase into the trunk, kissed my mother goodbye, and told my friend I’d drop him off at his house on the way out of town.
In my haste, I had forgotten all about Willie. It was a sunny and warm spring day, so he had curled up under the front of my car to take a nap. When we got into the car to leave and I turned the ignition, before I ever put the car into reverse to back out of the yard, Willie was startled by the sound of the engine, jumped up, hit his head on something under the car, and ran to the yard just south of our house.
Our neighbor, Stanley Stout, was outside when Willie ran over there, and just as quickly as Willie ran, he immediately dropped to the ground. Stanley examined him and tried to do what he could to revive him, but it was too late. Willie was dead of an apparent heart attack. There wasn’t a mark on him. Willie was only five years old.
My mother and I were both devastated, she to the point of almost being inconsolable. She had lost my father a few months earlier and now Willie was gone, too. It was all I could do to make myself go back to Purdue, but I knew I had to. Stanley said he’d take care of burying Willie. A few weeks later, Aunt Audrey presented Mother with a little female dachshund puppy which my mom named “Greta.” She kept Greta for eleven years until my mother’s death in 1974. They were as inseparable as Willie and I had been.
I’ve had many dogs since Willie, and I’ll admit that I’ve loved at least two of them as much as I loved Willie, but like your first kiss, you just don’t forget your first dog, especially if it meant as much to you as Willie did to me. We may have been broken early in life, but with each other’s help, we persevered.