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Swimming the Mianus
My parents used to have a beautiful white clapboard house on the banks of the Mianus River, in Connecticut. The smallish river lolled past beautiful houses, dotted with green lawns, gray docks, white Adirondack chairs and small colorful boats. My parents' house had a huge lawn that rolled down to the water.
Looking across the water, you could see small boats at anchor, with their empty, rickety lobster pots stacked like building blocks thrown in a pile, bobbing up and down on the shining water. On the most memorable days, the sky was blue, the grass bright green and the whites blinding—a perfect postcard.
It was on such a day that Exley, my year-and-a-half-old German shorthaired pointer, decided he would go for a swim. He was young and sturdy and precocious. He romped around, tough and strong, still with the youthful energy and excitement of a puppy.
Exley had a solid dark chocolate head, with three large liver patches, gray flecking and white socks. He was not exceptionally big, but he had a broad chest and alert eyes. He could be a terror one minute and an absolute sweetheart the next. A hunting machine, he liked nothing better than to fall asleep with his head on my lap. He was affectionate to a fault. But his penchant for chasing squirrels, birds, cats and other animals never ended well—especially for him.
Exley loved my parents' backyard, and was fond of rooting around in the shore's black, fine, oozy mud. Though my mother loved Exley, she was never very happy to see him arrive at her house, despite my protestations, for some mischief was always imminent. This particular day was no different.
Exley and I had been working on his training, and I decided here in the quiet of my parents' unfenced backyard would be a good time to reinforce my position as the alpha male in our limited pack of two.
'Siiiit,' I said quietly, stepping back slowly. 'Sit.' I used an even, forceful tone. And it was working. I was now about twenty-five paces away. I stopped and commanded evenly again, 'Down, Exley. Down.' He got down and stayed down, and I began moving a little farther, and a little farther back. I was the master, I was the alpha male, I was in control. Finally, I was fifty to sixty paces away on our second attempt at the exercise, when I said, 'Good boy, Exley! Good boy.' I said this at the end, because no matter how I said it, quietly, excitedly, evenly, Exley would break. He was consistent in this. No matter the tone, he always broke when I praised him.
Now, Exley had always been good at coming back to me. And here he was, running toward me. Ears flapping up and down, his big pink tongue flopping like a rag doll from his mouth, a puppyish prance in his step, he bounced toward me. Suddenly, his eyes narrowed, his ears pricked up, his tongue drew in and his mouth closed. His gait changed from a bouncy trot to a thundering gallop. His powerful chest tightened, his stride exploded, and he raced down the slope of my parents' lawn like a horse in the Light Brigade. I tried to step in his way, but he barely lost stride, changing directions with speed and accuracy not seen since the Roman cavalry. I did not exist.
The ground shook as he approached and then shot past me. Though I felt some trepidation, and even as I was hollering, 'Exley, come here!' at the top of my lungs, I could not help but admire his grace and elegance while in a full burst of pure speed. His body bobbed like an engine piston, with the grace of a thoroughbred, but his head stayed fixed like a cheetah in mid-hunt.
And then he leapt. I can still remember yelling 'Nooooo,' in slow motion, like in a bad Burt Reynolds movie. His leap was magnificent. In mid-air, he was the image of artful grace. He rose high over the shimmering water, his front paws elegantly stretched out before him, his hind legs balancing his back, and his Goofy-like ears flapping up in the wind. And into the beautiful New England postcard Exley leapt. His splash broke the silence that only existed in the motion picture inside my head.
'Exley, come! Exley, come here now! Exley!' But there was no penetrating his thick head. I scanned the water. There were three boats in the vicinity. But where was he going? There were no birds. He had been known to swim after ducks and seagulls. He was obsessed with game of any kind. I called and called but he did not heed me. He paddled furiously. One boat missed him. Another boat passed and obscured my view. None of these distracted him. Then it occurred to me. He was swimming to the opposite shore!
'No! No! Come back!' I screamed and hollered, but Exley kept moving. Trying to peer between the boats and houses and other obstacles, I squinted to see what was drawing his attention. But I couldn't see a thing. I realized I needed to move quickly. I raced up the lawn, ran into the house, swiped the keys and raced to the car. I had to get to the other side.
I roared down the sun-dappled, crooked country road like Gene Hackman in The French Connection, honking at all those in my way. Getting there was no easy feat. I had to race up toward Route One, drive across the river and find the road on the opposite bank. It should have been easy, but Murphy's Law was like gravity at ten-plus that day. Finally, I raced down the road, finding the landmarks I had picked out before I left.
I searched the riverbank. I looked at houses he might have been tempted to investigate. I checked out a couple of garbage bins where he might have been tempted to dine. I worried he might have been killed by an oncoming car. I drove up and down the street making sure he wasn't crumpled on the side of the road. What had I done?! Oh, how could I let something happen to him? It was then that I noticed that on the opposite shore, people on a passing boat were pointing to something. It was Exley, crawling back onto land . . . onto my parents' lawn. He was emerging from the tidal waters, covered in mud, rising like some canine version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He shook himself off, his large ears flapping and his stubby little tail wagging away. I was never so happy in my life. He was safe!
Just as suddenly as he had bolted passed me into the water, I now saw him bolting toward my parents' house. The patio door was open, and again it seemed I had entered some bad made-for-television movie. He bounded faster and faster, coated in earthy slime, up the trimly cut lawn, toward the striped-awning covered patio and my parents' house. 'Noooooooo!'
Exley was banished from my parents' house that day. The mud had been tracked through the entire house. My mother screamed at him. My father screamed at him. I screamed at him. I yanked him outside to give him a bath, and when I was sure my parents weren't anywhere near, I got on the ground, and hugged him as never before. And I laughed; I laughed so heartily. I laughed because I loved him and was so happy he was alive. He licked my face and wagged his stubby little tail. He smelled awful, simply awful, and I hugged him all the more.
©2008. Carlo DeVito. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Chicken Soup for the Soul: Celebrates Dogs and the people who love them by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street , Deerfield Beach , FL 33442.