Power of the Dog

When I write about a friend or loved one who has died, it’s to try to keep the person alive a little bit longer. It’s a greedy thing, sure: “Stay with me! Stay with me, don’t you go, damn it!”

Have done it for four years with my late wife and son. Occasionally, I do the same with my parents, and my buddies Don and Paul, who passed in their prime.

“I had a prime?” Paul would’ve teased.

“Define prime,” Don would’ve said.

Similarly, I can’t stop missing Vin Scully, can’t let him go. He worked the press box like a character in a Harold Arlen musical. Vinny was the best thing to happen to baseball since beer.

Vin always said that the roar of the crow was his favorite ballpark sound. In his telecasts, he used crowd reaction the way Bach used violins.

Scully never forgot a name, a song lyric, a story. I’m convinced he had a photographic memory, he just didn’t tell anyone. He preferred to be an Everyman, a working-class kid from the Bronx.

I imagine him in that press box because that’s where he was most happy – there or at home with his wife, Sandi.

Man, they had a marriage. He held her hand like no man I’ve ever seen. When Sandi died last year, I told my son Smartacus that Vin would join her soon. It was almost Shakespearean. She goes, he goes. Juliet. Then Romeo.

We all have our favorite spots, our comfort zones. When I remember my late wife, she’s stirring tomato sauce with a wooden spoon. With my son, it’s hiking. When I think of my dad, he’s pushing off from a dock on a glassy Wisconsin lake. When I think of my mom, it’s in her garden, the one Monet must’ve planted.

When I think of Don and Paul, it’s at Dodger games with a cardboard tray of ballpark food in their laps.

These were their little Earth-heavens, the places that made them the most happy.

With my latest loss, Gary, it’s at the little park by the church.

Gary died the other day, a few weeks shy of 80. I called him Dogpark Gary, which he didn’t like. Made him sound like a hobo who lived in a park, he said.

Occasionally, strangers would ask him: “Wait, are you the guy they call Dogpark Gary?” If he complained, I’d say, “Hey, I’m Dogpark Chris. What’s the big deal? Relax!”

For five years, Gary and I met at daybreak with our dogs. His latest project, Jack, was a rescue of unclear vintage – trace of shepherd and pitbull, some boxer mixed in there, possibly some raccoon.

Jack had been on the streets when the shelter took him in, then Gary came along. As if to say, “Hi, I’m here, thank you very much,” Jack arrived home and immediately swallowed a tennis ball whole. The vet told Gary he had a choice: Either expensive surgery or a painful death for Jack. Gary chose the $3,000 surgery, for a mutt he barely knew.

“Worst dog ever,” he’d say when White Fang and I would hang out with them.

For Gary, though, there were no bad dogs. When he first brought Jack home, Gary asked his wife for three months to break the new dog of all his lousy habits.

“Only took four,” Gary would say.

Gary died a day before Vinny. That’s a one-two punch, right there.

Vin and Gary were part of a generation without a name. As Garrison Keillor recently put it, their generation predates narcissism, “the country was too busy fighting fascism and saving the world, they didn’t bother to hand out generational identities.”

What’s going on with these old guys? There aren’t that many left – my dad, my uncles, my touchstones, all gone.

Wait, does that make me the old guy now? Oh, shut up.

Meanwhile, Gary’s orphaned dog is bunking with me on a temporary basis. Jack washes my face every time I bend down to put on shoes. To me, he represents all the good things humans do for dogs. And all the good things dogs do for humans. Such a pact.

This week, my friends Lynne and Will are going to give him a permanent place, in a glorious backyard with big slabs of shade where Jack can nap or chase his beloved orange ball. To sweeten the deal, we’re throwing in a pair of Gary’s slippers for Jack to swaddle, a touchstone, a slice of home.

Gary’s daughter, Crystal, says that was her father’s dying wish – please take care of Jack, “please make sure someone loves that silly dog.”

Got you covered, pal.

Email the columnist at Letters@ChrisErskineLA.com. For books, t-shirts or past columns, please go to ChrisErskineLA.com.

18 thoughts on “Power of the Dog

  1. Good morning, Caroll. I’m up so early because I’m taking an old-fashioned train ride to a wedding today. Aww, Dogpark Gary. Has it only been 5 years? He was a fixture here. What a great and generous person. God bless you, Gary. May the road rise up to meet you.

  2. Oh, Chris, so sorry to read this one. A beautiful, heartfelt tribute to a lovely guy. A few hours ago, as I tossed around in another of my Fitzgerald dark nights of the soul, grinding my teeth over the ugliness that seems to be overwhelming our world, I thought of the email I’d gotten yesterday from the Midnight Mission, where volunteers spent all of Thursday night walking through downtown offering comfort and information to the homeless. It reminded me, as your piece did, that there are countless numbers of decent, big hearted people like Gary, doing quiet, generous, kind things, big or small, that don’t get the attention they deserve, but that make an impact. Rage, fear, hatred, they make so much noise, they can drown out the beautiful songs that are out there every day. We need the reminders. So, to tweak our friend, William Goldman, “You keep singing, Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”

  3. Thanks Chris!
    I recently lost my wife of 58 years. She fell at home on Memorial Day after returning for a joyous weekend family reunion in Sonoma. Life partner, Mom, Nonna to our granddaughters, the world’s sweet best friend.
    She loved all of our dogs, mostly labs. Especially Bert, our big old Golden Lab (50/50). Her Mass and great party 🎊 were celebrated Monday!
    Now it’s me and Bert, my family & friends both here & late.
    I’m blessed. I’m grateful!
    Joe Paggi

  4. My sympathy to you, as I read through my tears it all is so relevant to how I feel on the same topics. I never met Dog Park Gary, but know how a casual acquaintance can morph into a forever friend. So sorry

  5. Loved every word through my tears. The only thing I love as much as your words is dogs and the people who care for them. Thank you. You honored Gary, Vin and all your dearly departed loved ones. I know they are proud and pleased. Jack, live it up.

  6. Dear Chris, what a beautiful tribute to your friend, Dogpark Gary. I hope Jack loves his new home. Now excuse me while I wipe away the tears.

  7. Such a beautiful tribute to Gary, Vinny and of course Jack.
    Thank you for a great cleansing cry on a Saturday morning.

  8. You broke me today, Chris. Gee, thanks! Vinny, Dogpark Gary, the dog, all our losses rolled into one tearjerking tribute. Lost my husband of 51 years six weeks ago, and moved my 98-year-old father in to live with me.

  9. Chris, you do a beautiful job of story telling that reduces me to tears more often than not…today was a perfect example. It seems as though you have experienced more heart rending losses than most of us which seems unfair.

  10. Damn. The more passionately and intensely you live, the fuller your existence, and the greater your experience of loss. At least it feels that way. Damn. These are matters of the human spirit. Grieving is a bleeding of that spirit, and though it may subside and even scar over, the leakage often never stops. A wound is a wound and becomes part of us, scar tissue a cellular memory often associated with the love of its cause. I wonder if Jack knows any of this, canine theism a matter of conjecture at this point. Jack looks more that competent. What he is feeling we do not and cannot know. The wolf could probably tell us, but she’s not saying. I think Gary lives in him in ways we cannot understand. Nor can we understand two big back to back losses so deep in the beauty of a memorable Summer. Damn. There is more to say, but words cannot touch it.

  11. Aww Chris, so many losses come in pairs. You and I know this more than most people. Here’s to Dogpark, Vin, your boy and mine, wonderful wife and marvelous mom. Hugs and understanding always.

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