Dogs were without question at the top of the list. But there were other creatures for whom he had little affection as well: Deer, for instance, the ones who nibbled at the seedlings in his newly created tree nursery. For these he had devised a special deterrent: a sturdy slingshot which he fastened to the railing of his deck with a vice. Whenever he spotted deer dining in his nursery beds out in the meadow he would take a cherry bomb, pull it back as far as it would go in the sling, light it, and let it rip, aiming it in a high arc over the heads of the perpetrators. When it went off, there would be a precipitous dispersal of the munchers, and the nursery owner, who was also a college professsor and my father, would go back into his house a satisfied man.
Dogs were another matter. There was nothing that they did that was in any way harmful to his person or his property; he just didn’t like them. Thought they should be exterminated from the United States. They slobbered and licked and smelled bad, and worst of all, in social situations where interaction could not be avoided, he had to camouflage his repugnance.
One day dear friends of my parents were coming from New Haven for a visit. Their children were grown, and the light of their lives was their Dalmatian, Jires. For an hour-and-a-half before their arrival there was animated discussion about the likelihood, or not, of their being accompanied on this visit by Jires. My father could not believe that they would be so presumptuous as to do this without at least calling first. My mother, sister, and I thought it was extremely unlikely that they would appear at our door without Jires. My father suggested that we put our money where our mouths were and make a three-to-one wager: if Jires came, he had to give us each a buck, and if there was no Jires, we owed him three bucks.
When the couple arrived, we tried not to be too obvious peering past them when we opened the front door, but there was no Jires to be seen. After the initial greetings my father, barely concealing his smirk, casually inquired as to the absence of Jires. Our guests’ faces fell, simultaneously. “We were too upset to break it to you over the phone,” the wife said, struggling for composure, “but we lost Jires last Thursday!” My father, perhaps utilizing the Thespian abilities that had dazzled his philosophy students, let out an anguished, “Oh no!!! What happened???” whereupon the details of Jire’s passing were laid out – a scenario during which there was minimum eye contact among the members of the host family. After our friends had gone, we agreed that under the circumstances, my father’s was not a clean victory, and by the time we all went to bed, he had magnanimously waived the three dollars we owed him.
My father’s antipathy toward dogs was not limited to situations in which he was forced to be in close contact with them. A particular object of dislike was the German Shepherd owned by his neighbor, Sweeny, who himself was not a favorite. Sweeny had made the mistake early on of appearing uninvited in his bathing suit at the edge of my father’s pond. Sweeny’s house was located at the end of my father’s long driveway, part way up the dirt road that led to the highway. Whenever you drove away from our house you had to Pass Sweeny’s place and brace yourself for the onslaught of the Shepherd, who would come tearing out of the bushes, barking and leaping toward the car. It was indeed unnerving, partly because you knew it was going to happen, like waiting for the toast to pop, and partly because you were afraid you might inadvertently run him over. My mother and sister and I didn’t like it any more than my father did, but we were extremely uneasy when he came back from an errand one day and announced, “I’ve solved the Sweeny dog problem!” To our relief, the solution turned out to be simply that he keep a pile of fire crackers on his dashboard, and as the dog crept out for his attack, my father would light one with his Zippo lighter and toss it out the window as he drove by. After his initial success it took only one more drive-by and detonation for the dog to lie low whenever my father approached. As my mother and sister and I weren’t interested in dealing with incendiary devises while we drove, we continued to endure the annoyance of the dog. One day, however, I was low on gas and borrowed my father’s car to go to the market. My stomach muscles tightened as I approached Sweeny’s place, but the dog took one look at the car and did an immediate about-face, slinking away with his tail between his legs. When I got back and reported this to my father, he was pleased with the carry-over effectiveness of his method, but seemed slightly deflated that the dog’s fear was based solely on the car, rather than on his intimidating presence. He did grudgingly admit that the car recognition on the part of the dog indicated a certain amount of intelligence—an attribute he had never been willing to ascribe to the dog’s owner, Sweeny.
My father’s attempts to control his environment were occasionally thwarted by creatures other than dogs and deer. One evening when my parents came home after a party, they were greeted with the sight of a large raccoon in the middle of the dining table, making a meal of the fruit decoratively assembled in a glass-stemmed bowl at the table’s center. It had apparently entered through the special door my father had rigged up for our cat. The cat, who was never allowed on the table, was sitting off to the side on the rug, observing this tableau with what my parents claimed was an unmistakable smile, anticipating the punishment she knew awaited the raccoon.
A wild chase ensued, with my father shouting, “Scram, beat it!” and the raccoon running with fructose paws all over the chairs and the couch, in every direction but toward the door opening onto the deck. By the time my father succeeded in getting it out, there were juice stains on every surface, and the only vestige of contentment was on the part of the cat, who followed the raccoon out, perhaps feeling that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Several weeks later, it was the deer who were again to be my father’s bete noir, when he spied two of them at the far side of the meadow, gnawing at his andromeda bushes. When he went to the garage to get a cherry bomb he discovered that he had run out. Thinking quickly, he grabbed the covers of two tin garbage cans, and using them as cymbals, tore across the field clashing them and wildly shouting at the deer. As my mother and sister and I looked on from the deck, the deer glanced up at my father, turned to look at each other, looked back at my father and resumed peacefully munching.
Jean Venable was a writer/producer for NBC Network News in New York City for 25 years. Married, one son, seven stepchildren. Recently published in Biostories.com (upcoming April 2014) and A Narrow Fellow, Journal of Poetry.