In writing the unpublished novel BOY AT SEA, based on my personal experiences of going to sea on a Norwegian coal freighter as a third cook when I was 16 years old, I also used family characters and events to give depth to the 1950s narrative era.
One of the most vivid memories of childhood is when I assisted my father in performing cancer surgery on my grandfather’s dog. This is that story.
HIS FATHER AND DOGS
Buddy James’s father was a reticent storyteller. He seldom spoke about his manhood. What few insights were given were told from his childhood. At age six, Glenn James had driven his father’s Model A Ford out of its shed, circled a huge plum tree at the side yard in sight of the Fairgrounds fence, and then parked it back in the garage. When he told his father what he had done, he was admonished not to invent fantasies. Glenn then required the entire family, including his two older brothers and two older sisters, to witness the feat done a second time.
The boy’s father had a sensitivity toward animals that at times seemed magical. Glenn had no fear of rampaging dogs, and the boy more than once saw his father separate dogs—muzzle to muzzle in bitter combat in their front yard—by snatching them by the fur at the backs of their necks and flinging them apart.
When Buddy was a teenager, his father discovered a pit bull dog abandoned by a rental family. The dog had been chained to a clothesline pole and was ravenous, vicious, and injured from trying to escape the chain. Glenn James first pushed food and water within the dog’s reach before and after each workday in a machine shop. On weekends he sat just beyond the dog’s bite and talked to him. It took two weeks before he could approach the dog and begin to medicate its wounds. Days later, he was able to remove the chain and bloody collar. Finally one day, the dog followed Glenn to his new home five houses away. For as long as the dog lived, no one could approach Glenn without reassuring that dog of their good intent.
Whenever the boy thought about his father and dogs, he could not help but revisit the memory of the cancer surgery he had assisted his father in performing on his grandfather’s ancient beagle hound. The dog’s name was Tito. He was famous for his long tongue that constantly protruded as much as three inches from his panting mouth. Tito had chased rabbits in his prime and loved to howl the sentiments of the hunt. But now the old boy’s muzzle was completely white, his black and tan spots subdued by age, his gait a slow struggle to cross from a shade tree to his tin feed dish. An ugly growth had appeared on the back of his neck and grown like a hideous black mushroom. The vet said that it was cancerous and recommended that Tito be put down, but the boy’s grandfather could not do it. So when the vet refused to operate, Glenn decided to try.
The day was already hot when Buddy helped his father put the weathered gray planks across equally antique sawhorses as an operating table. The location was away from the house—in the sun for light on the lawn nearer the tool shed and the chicken house. His grandfather had no stomach for the event and set off for a long walk up to the boulevard where the streetcar tracks ran and where there was a confectionery shop next to the movie house where he could have his Pepsi and maybe even a candy bar to take away the bitter taste in his mouth caused by hurt. He fully expected to find Tito dead when he returned.
Glenn spread out a white oilcloth over the gray planks and assembled the tools of a trade so piteously thrust upon him—a short flat can of ether, a fat gauze pad to administer the anesthetic, a newly, skillfully sharpened straight razor, a razor-sharp pointed paring knife, two surgical forceps, and a talcum-like can of sulfa powder from a WW II medical kit purchased at a surplus store, and assorted gauze pads and adhesive tape.
Buddy brought out of the house a pan of hot water and the mug of shaving soap with its lathering brush. Tito watched with the languid eye of his dimmed vision, displaying his legendary tongue, moving his tail as resolutely as he could in the acknowledgment of company. His father required help as the man and twelve-year-old boy lifted the forty-pound sack of dog onto the outdoor operating table.
In the boy’s memory, there were shared events in which his father achieved a greatness he could not recall in other men. The surgery on Tito demonstrated a nobility that the boy always found heroic. The boy’s role was to hold the dog down during the shaving around the surgical site and the anesthesia, and then to position the head for the cutting. His father worried more about the ether than the surgery itself. He feared the gauging of how much anesthetic the animal could take before it went to sleep forever.
There was much less blood than Buddy had dreaded. The mass itself was sliced off by the razor in one definitive cut and dropped from forceps onto the grass. The agony came in his father’s determination to cut out the tentacles of the cancer rooted in the dog’s neck. The process seemed endless, the boy expecting Tito to awaken and chaos to ensue any moment. He watched the dog’s closed lids and listened to every labored breath as a duty that released him from watching the surgical progress a foot away from his nose. Finally his father relented, put down the bloody paring knife, washed the open wound, powdered it generously with sulfa, and then bandaged the neck of the old hunting hound. They removed Tito to a pallet in the boiler room off the kitchen of the house and watched him for long hours before he revived. By nightfall, the dog stood and ate his supper. He lived another two years and died finally in his sleep.