Ole Duke's Polecat Wars
My Father always told me that there were three things you should never throw off on: a man’s wife, his children, or his hunting dog, not necessarily in that order. You might get away with criticizing a man’s wife or his kids, although it won’t win you any friends, but he could lose his temper and shoot you over a dog. This must be true the world over.
Just the other day I heard of an entire neighborhood in India that was in an uproar. The breakdown in community relations started just because one person had the unmitigated gall to criticize and complain publicly about another family’s pet. Eventually the whole neighborhood was embroiled in the controversy.
In Green River where I grew up, boys didn’t exactly consider our dogs as pets. They fell into an entirely different and more important category, especially dogs that were used for hunting. Some men have more real affection for their hunting dogs than anyone else they know.
That’s the way I felt about ole Duke even though he was just a mutt, and not technically a hunting dog. I still remember him as my loyal companion, protector, and friend. He was not pure bred like the dogs some of my neighbors had, which were trained to hunt rabbits, ‘possums, coons, birds, bears, or foxes. However, any of these creatures including cats that showed themselves openly would immediately be given chase by ole Duke. They often met with an untimely end.
Duke was sort of an odd looking character. He had the head of a German shepherd, but a short thick neck like a bulldog. He weighed in somewhere around a seventy-five pounds, and to the consternation of several other boys in the community, whenever he got into a fight the other dog rarely survived. This did cause conflicts between some of my neighbors and me, but as previously stated a southern boy will always take the side of his dog.
My first cousin and I even had a falling out once over our dogs. I used to buy an occasional can of dog food as a treat for Duke with the money I earned on my paper route. I would cut off one of the lids with my pocketknife, stab a hole in the other end, and then blow the contents out on the ground. He would grab the entire sixteen ounces of dog food in his teeth, toss it to the back of his throat, and swallow it whole like a big capsule. I often wondered if he even tasted it. One day I made the mistake of doing this while my cousin’s dog, Bullet, was standing too close. I guess Duke thought that Bullet had gotten some of the food and jumped all over him. My cousin wouldn’t even speak to me for two weeks after that incident.
I don’t want you to get the wrong impression about Duke. He wasn’t mean, or ill tempered. Normally he was very laid back and reliable, but he was a dog. A dog has the nature of a dog no matter how much we trim, perfume, and dress them up, trying to make something else out of them. I guess the same thing could be said about trying to change some people’s basic nature. My Father often said, “Son, you just can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
I do remember however, a day when Duke proved just how smart and gentle he could be. My paper route stretched from uncle Fred’s Texaco station up in Frog Level, down along Lake Summit, up through the mill village in Tuxedo, around by Freeman’s Lunch, all the way up a steep hill to the Levi family’s house, then back down to the neighborhood behind Beddingfield’s store near the Green River bridge. All in all it had to have been well over ten miles that I covered six days a week on my bike. Back then the Hendersonville Times-News didn’t have a Sunday edition. Duke ran alongside me every step of the way.
Once a bad tempered little miniature poodle, which I had problems with every single time I tried to collect payment for the papers, escaped from its fenced in yard. It charged down the steps barking and growling like it was a Rottweiler and tried to bite me. Duke came charging in, and I just knew he was going to do away with my customer’s pet as swiftly as he could swallow a whole can of dog food. What he did was totally unexpected. He just laid down over top of the poodle and growled so fiercely that it began to whimper, tremble, and pee on its self. I quickly got on my bike and sped away. I looked back and saw that Duke kept the poodle pinned to the ground like a professional wrestler until I was well down the road. Then he calmly stood up and trotted after me like nothing had ever happened. Duke got two cans of dog food that day, since he had certainly saved me from a poodle bite, and the almost guaranteed loss of a customer if he had acted differently. Needless to say Duke was well loved.
Our relationship did eventually fall on hard times, which proved to be devastating for the both of us. One summer morning when I got up and went outside Duke ran over to me with his characteristic tail wagging, prancing around, and rubbing up against me for a little petting.
I immediately was overwhelmed with the sickening stench of a skunk. He had obviously gotten into a fight with a skunk and came out smelling like one himself. I ran up onto the back porch and looked out at him through the protection of the screen door. I wanted to keep a considerable distance from my best friend who at that particular moment was stinking to high heaven. If it smelled that bad to me, I wondered how in the world he could stand himself. A dog’s sense of smell is supposed to be over a thousand times better than a human’s.
I yelled through the back door, “Hey Mamma come out here. I need some help. Duke got sprayed by a skunk last night and boy does he stink.”
Mamma didn’t even think about going out into the yard to investigate. She could smell him all the way in the kitchen. She said, “Jimmy, get in here, and shut that door. I don’t want the whole house smelling like a polecat.”
She took something out of the cupboard and something else from under the sink. Then she turned around and said, “Here, take this can of tomato juice and this bar of octagon soap and get out there and bathe your dog. Do it way down by the creek away from the house. Wet him down first, then lather him up real good with the octagon soap a couple of times. It’ll cut through the skunk oil. When you’ve done all that rub the tomato juice deep into his fur, and don’t rinse it off. Tomato juice is just about the only thing that will take away enough of the smell to make him tolerable to be around.”
I went back outside with my anti skunk smell weapons in hand and lured my friend down by the creek where I chained him up to a tree. I knew if I didn’t, he would never hold still for the indignation that was to come. By the time the ordeal was over I was not sure who smelled worse, my thoroughly humiliated and tomato juice marinated dog or me. Mamma seemed of the same mind, because she forced me to hose off and lather up a couple of times with the octagon soap out in the yard before she would let me back in the house to take a proper shower.
After a couple of days Duke’s odor had calmed down sufficiently that I could stand to pet him. My hand still picked up a little of the smell, but it wasn’t that bad. They say that love covers a multitude of sins. I guess it works for stink as well, up to a point.
The sad thing is that before the week was out, he had another polecat battle and smelled even worse than at the end of his first engagement. This time Mamma just handed me the tomato juice and octagon soap, without instructions or commentary. The way she looked at both of us was sufficient. Duke and I went back down to the creek for our aromatherapy spa treatment.
After the third battle of ole Duke’s polecat wars in less than three weeks my father said, “Son, we can’t afford to keep bathing your dog in tomato juice every time he finds a skunk. A dog can’t kill a skunk without getting sprayed, and it just keeps making him madder and madder. Duke hates skunks so much now that he’s going out looking for them. His anger has made him blind to the consequences of his own actions. All we can do is chain him up for a while and hope he gets over it.”
Duke had never been chained up much. He didn’t take it well. He was used to running loose at night and was constantly at my side during the long days of summer. In the fall he would follow me to school every day. Then he was there waiting for me when school let out so that we could run our afternoon paper route.
It was about a month before the stench of the skunk had faded away. During that time I fed him every day, but had kept my distance because of the smell. I had run my paper route alone. It wasn’t near as much fun. I guess Duke took his confinement as a personal rejection. When I finally let him off the chain for the first time he simply walked away. He stopped to look back at me just once, but he never came home again.
For a while I wondered what had happened to him. I thought maybe a neighbor had poisoned or shot him, because he had never stayed away for very long before. Then one morning several months later when I was on a school bus going to Flat Rock Junior High, I saw him running with a pack of dogs about seven or eight miles from home. I never saw the best dog I ever had again, but at least I knew he was still alive.
Sometimes we are blind to our own bad attitudes, which make us so stinky,
Even the people, who truly love us, don’t want to be around us anymore.