Getting Sheba came as a complete surprise to me. I had given up on the idea. My parents had always came up with a hundred reasons why I couldn’t have a dog. Then one Saturday morning I was told that we were going to visit my dad’s friend who lived on a farm not far away.
When we pulled into the driveway, we were greeted by a pair of Alaskan Malamutes with a pack of rolling, tumbling puppies in tow. My mom and dad were invited into the house for coffee and I was told that I could stay outside and play with the puppies.
One female seemed interested in getting and holding my attention. When the other puppies grew tired and lost interest, going off to find their mother, she stayed to play, and when she finally tired, she lay down on top of my shoe. When my mom and dad came out of the house and it was clear we were about to leave I was told that I could pick one of the pups. I didn’t hesitate. I scooped the little female up into my arms and headed for the car, afraid that they would change their mind. And that’s how I met Sheba.
I don’t know why my parents changed their attitude about my having a dog. They must have realized that I needed a friend—I didn’t have any. We moved around too much for me to have friends. By the time I was in the seventh grade I had been to eight different schools and had quit trying to make friends. I didn’t see the point—I would be leaving soon.
The old man was a tool and die maker and traveled from one job shop to the next in search of that big rock candy mountain. But he did the best he could with a sixth grade education. I once watched him teach himself trigonometry from a library book. He told me that all knowledge was written down somewhere and that if I could read, I could find out whatever I needed to know.
By the time I dropped out of school to go in the service I had attended fifteen different schools in five states. Being the new kid sucks, but always being the new kid sucks in the extreme. New kids are tested, and if they come up short, or their shyness is perceived as timidity, they get bullied. I was a bully magnet.
I had developed a survival strategy of not doing anything that would draw attention to myself, like participating in class, which caused my grades to suffer. By the time Jr. High rolled around I was just getting by. Advancing to the next grade level was always iffy. Thanks to my less than stellar academic performance the new school system had placed me in a class designated 7-D, with the flunkies. I was the youngest boy in 7-D, the rest having failed a grade at least once, some of them three and four times. These older boys, on top of not being very bright, were mean. Two of them once held me down in the locker room while a third held a knife to my privates and threatened to nut me. I somehow knew that if I showed fear the tormenting would escalate, so I did my best to contain the fear. But the fear was there, a gut-wrenching, settle to the bottom of the stomach fear that stayed with me through weekends and holiday vacations.
I would get to school hours early before the doors opened, going blocks out of my way to avoid the corner where they all hung out, smoking cigarettes and waiting for victims. I didn’t tell my parents how bad things were at school. This was 1966 blue collar Indiana and bullies were just a fact of life. My dad had grown up a tough kid on the streets of Chicago, he would have just told me to fight back, but there were too many of them and I knew I didn’t stand a chance. Anyway, I now had Sheba to think about, care for, and look forward to getting home to. The fear that I had carried around in the pit of my stomach, with its metallic taste, left me when I was with her; Sheba needed me.
I went to the library and read everything I could find on Alaskan Malamutes. I learned that they had a thick undercoat that had to be pulled off in the spring, a process that resembled carding wool. I learned that they would curl up with their tail over their noses in a snow storm and let the snow cover them up, forming a snow cave that kept them quite warm. I also learned that they were notoriously sneaky, but Sheba was always honest with me. The books were right about the snow caves though. It always made me laugh when she would poke her head out of the snow when I called her the morning after a snow storm. We both enjoyed the combing and plucking in the spring. She would lay quietly at my feet until I had her stripped clean of undercoat and always seemed thankful to be rid of it.
I learned that when school let out for the summer we would be moving again and I wasn’t sorry to be putting this school behind me. Just before school let out for the summer, I was sitting at my desk, which happened to be next to this girl I had a crush on, when one of the worst of the bullies walked passed me and slapped me across the face hard. No reason. He just wanted to slap somebody. I exploded. I jumped up and planted a series of punches to his face that staggered him back and had him covering his head. I bloodied his nose and split his lip and he never even tried to fight back. Instead, he cowered and tried to cover up. That day I learned that most bullies are cowards and the best way to stop a bully is to meet him head on. I know that isn’t the accepted response nowadays, but it works. Bullies, like electricity, follow the path of least resistance. The bullying suddenly stopped, and for the rest of the year I went unmolested.
After school let out we moved to a small farming community in the northeast part of the state. Sheba and I had the whole summer to explore our new surroundings. We roamed through the surrounding fields and explored abandoned houses. We knew every foot path that lead to the creek just south of town. We went camping. We lay in the grass, me with my head on her flank, and watched the clouds roll by. We enjoyed each other’s company and loved each other without reservation. The excitement she would display at seeing me each morning was wonderful to me because I was just as glad to see her. She would leap, over and over, straight into the air until I fell to my knees and threw my arms around her. I didn’t want summer to end and school to start, but I wasn’t scared to go to school now. That summer I had a growth spurt that had people asking me if I was going out for football, and my parents wondering how they were going to keep me in shoes—and I had learned something about bullies.
The one good thing about changing schools is that you get to reinvent yourself. You can leave all the pain and embarrassment behind. There would be bullies I knew, they had been at every other school I’d been to, but now I knew how to get them off of my ass. The other thing that had changed was that my grades had improved. I had hit the books that last year, determined to get away from the flunkies and get moved into a class with kids my own age. At the new school the bully wasn’t big, or tough, he just had a big mouth and a following of wannabes.
We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. My parents could hardly keep shoes on my feet, my toes are deformed now from wearing shoes that were too small, and my clothes, while always clean, sometimes had patches. When this new bully and his groupies started in on me about my clothes in the gym locker one day, I ignored them, but when he jerked one of my mother’s patches off of my shirt and called me a nigger, I grabbed him by the front of his shirt, slapped him back and forth across the face, and tossed him into the lockers. His friends vanished, but the gym teacher appeared. We were taken to the principal’s office, interrogated, told to bring one of our parents to school with us the next day, and sent home. That night I told my dad what had happened and he told me that he would take me to school the next day.
When we were seated in front of Mr. Dormire—the principal—he asked my father if I had told him what had happened. My father said, “Yes, he told me the other kid called him a name.” Mr. Dormire said, “Well, Mr. Robinson, what kind of world would this be if every time somebody called somebody a name they got punched in the mouth?” My dad said, “I recon there’d be a lot less name calling.” I was dismissed to go to class and I thought that was the end of it, but I was wrong. The bully had an older brother in high school.
The high school was several miles away, but the brother had a car, and like his younger brother, a cadre of followers. Even though they were much older they couldn’t come up with the intestinal fortitude to confront me personally, so they took to vandalizing our house and even put sugar in the gas tank of my dad’s car. Then they decided to get even with me through my dog.
I went out to feed her one morning and she was gone. I looked and called for her all over the neighborhood but couldn’t find her. My dad and I drove around looking everywhere we could think of that she might be but didn’t find her. She was missing for three days. Then late one night my dad heard something and found her laying on the front porch. She was in bad shape. She had a gash in her head and several teeth knocked out, and she had barbed wire wrapped around her neck. We took her to the vet the next day and he said she was dehydrated and starving and it looked as if she had been beaten and tortured for the three days she had been missing. She stayed with the vet for a couple of days and I don’t know where my dad found the money to pay him. What had awoken my dad that night was the sound of a car door, and he had seen a car in the driveway, a green Dodge Dart. It was a small town and we soon matched the car with a name.
A guy named Slim owned a green Dodge Dart and went to high school with the guys who I thought were responsible for what had happened to Sheba. I found out later that Slim had witnessed Sheba being beaten and had rescued her and brought her home. But that was after somebody unloaded both barrels of a twelve gage shotgun into the engine compartment of Slim’s Dart—sorry about that.
Around this time my father had become friendly with a young man named Billy who was home on leave from the service. My dad was a WWII veteran and they would sit on the front porch and talk about service life. It turned out that Billy was having trouble with the same bunch of guys over a girl; the girl had apparently been free with her favors until Billy came along, and the shit-birds—as Billy called them—weren’t too pleased with the dry spell (Billy got the girl, and they raised a family on a farm west of Zanesville Indiana). They had slashed his tires and he had taken to sleeping in his car hoping to catch them in the act. Billy started parking his car in front of our house so he and my dad could watch out for each other.
One night my dad, hearing a commotion, grabbed his shotgun and went outside to find a group of guys surrounding his friend. The windshield of Billie’s car was busted out and Billy was standing in the road with blood running down his face. When they saw my dad with the shotgun they took off running for their car. My dad blew a hole in the side of their car as they pealed out. By that time Billy had pulled a semiautomatic .22 rifle from his car and was emptying his clip into the back of the car as it headed over a hill. I had reached the front porch with my own .22, too late to get a shot off. It was like an old west shootout, and it was the last straw for the old man. We moved shortly after that—this time to Texas.
I was told that I would have to leave Sheba with my uncle and that we would send for her when we got settled. I was devastated and I remember holding her tight and sobbing into her neck when I said goodbye.
We rented a one bedroom studio apartment in Grand Prairie, Texas. My bed was a folding lawn chair and my bedroom doubled as the living room. The school was huge and there were so many kids that I was able to get lost in the crowd. I hated Texas. I hated everything about Texas. I hated sleeping on a lawn chair. I hated the new school, but most of all I hated not having Sheba, and with our living situation, it looked like it would be a long time before I would see her again. I began withdrawing into myself.
I did make one friend at this new school, a black kid they called Lightning, because when we played flag football nobody could catch him. Lightning was much older and had this tricked out ‘57’ Chevy. We would talk about his car and he’d show me what he’d done to it and talk about what he wanted to do to it. He took me for rides after school, and when he pealed out at a stop sign, we giggled. The only time he wasn’t quiet and reserved was when we were talking about cars. He told me that he had dropped out of school for a couple of years to work and help his mother, but now he was back to get his diploma.
One day we were standing behind the school by his car when a guy came up behind me and grabbed me in a full nelson. I knew how to get out of that. I kicked the guy in the shin until he let go. He started toward me with his fists up and just before he got within range of my fists Lightning stepped between us and told the guy to leave me alone. “He kicked me!” the guy protested. “You started it,” Lightning told him. Lightning had spoken, and the kid backed off.
One day I was pulled out of class and told to report to the office and when I got there my mother was waiting for me. She told me that there was somebody at home who wanted to see me. I couldn’t think of who it could be. She signed me out and when we pulled into the apartments she told me they were waiting for me in the back. When I came around the corner, there was Sheba. When she seen me her whole body wiggled and she began her leaping for joy greeting. I ran to her and grabbed her in a hug so tight she yelped, but she made no effort to get away. We spent the rest of the day playing and hanging out. My parents had had her flown in from Indiana, and until I went into the service years later, she was the only member of our family that had flown on an airplane.
Our stay in Texas didn’t last long. One Saturday my dad bought an old truck and we began building a wooden box in the bed of it to put our stuff in. We were moving again; this time to Florida, and Sheba was going with us. My grandfather had a cottage in a little town in Florida and we were going to stay there until my dad found a job and we got on our feet. I was glad to be getting out of Texas, and as long as I had my best friend with me, I didn’t care where we went.
I made a smooth transition into the school in Florida. The kids were friendly, my grades were up, and I made the football team. About six months after we were there, my dad had his first heart attack.
We wound up on welfare for a time. I was given a card to show the lunchroom attendant, another student, usually a pretty girl, that allowed me to get free lunches. But I was too embarrassed to use it so I didn’t eat lunch. One of the men of the touchdown club let us live in a cottage on his orange grove rent free in exchange for me working in his groves and clearing some property that he was developing. I would hoe under the orange trees and irrigate them in the summer, and in the winter I would sometimes stay up all night burning piles of old tires to keep the trees from freezing. Sheba was with me the whole time. The only difference that I could tell from being on welfare and not being on welfare was we didn’t eat meat, and the only shoes that my parents could afford to get me were these slip on tennis shoes from K-mart. At school they called me the tennis shoe kid.
Christmas day arrived and some people came by with a box of food and a few gifts. This was more than my dad could take and he took off the next day headed north looking for work. He found a job at a mop factory in a little town in Georgia, and when he got on his feet he came back and got my mom, me, and Sheba.
We moved into a trailer home that was surrounded by woods and pecan groves. Sheba was in heaven with all the new country to explore and we both liked the cooler weather. Football was king in this little town and on my first day of school a bunch of guys surrounded me and one of them said, “I only have one question, do you play football?” When I told him I did I was accepted.
My sixteenth birthday was coming up and my father spent a lot of time with me teaching me how to drive. We talked a lot about the future, exploring the options I had available. Unless I got a football scholarship, college was out. He talked a lot about going into the service. Every male member of our family was a veteran, so it seemed natural for me to follow suit. One day during one of our drives he told me that my mom needed an operation. He didn’t explain the details but he seemed optimistic.
I turned sixteen and my father arranged a summer job for me at the mop factory. The morning of my first day of work, my father gave me a quarter and told me to get myself a drink from the coke machine at break time and come have break with him. Just before break time the foreman came and got me and told me something had happened to my dad.
When I got to his work area I found him lying on the floor. He handed me his keys and told me to lock up his tool box. When I knelt beside him to give him his keys back, he grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s pray.” I prayed harder than I ever prayed before, or since, but the old man died that day, on that filthy shop floor, in that one-horse town in Georgia. Two weeks later my mother went into the hospital for a radical mastectomy. I didn’t find out until two years later that just before my father had his fatal heart attack he had received a phone call from my mother’s doctor informing him that my mother was terminal.
My mother came home from the hospital and seemed to be on the mend; she even went to work at the phone company, picking up her old carrier as an operator. Our financial situation went from bad to worse. I worked at the mop factory that summer and when school started I got an after school job at the ice-house. Sheba and I still took long walks in the woods from time to time, but with football, work, and friends, I neglected my best friend.
One day when I got home from working at the ice-house I found my mother laying on the floor unable to move. I picked her up in my arms and carried her to the car and drove her to the hospital. After she was admitted and I was on the way home I realized that she was dying. I called my uncle and told him what I knew and we made arrangements to take mom back to Indiana where my grandmother could care for her—I went to see the recruiter.
The day came for me to leave for boot camp and I had to say my goodbyes. I knew I would never see my mother alive again—she died two weeks later while I was in boot camp. When I said goodbye to Sheba, she was tied up in my uncle’s backyard. She was going to live with my cousin who lived on a farm. There would be fields to roam and children to play with there. I held her tight for some time and then I patted her on the head and walked away. I stopped and looked back just before I went around the corner of the house, she was watching me and wagging her tail, probably thinking that I was coming back to pet her some more. I never saw her again.
Sheba lived out her life on my cousin’s farm doing what she did best, being a friend and companion. I called from time to time to see how she was doing and my cousin always said Sheba was the best thing that ever happened to her family. She got old and crippled and was finally hit by a car out in front of my cousin’s house.
It’s been almost fifty years since we parted and tears run down my face as I write Sheba’s story, causing me to stop frequently when I can’t see the page, when I see Sheba jumping high and happy to see me. Most of the family and friends in this story are now long gone, but it’s Sheba that I long to see again most of all; she was the ligament that ran through the places and events of my youth, and bound them. What started out as a story about a dog ended up being a story about the death of a family unit, and how one by one we disappeared out of Sheba’s life. It is a story that I had to write as a way of seeking her forgiveness, for in the end, I patted her on the head and walked away from the best friend I ever had.
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