Sunday, May 11, 2008

1970s dog story - Willy P. and the pot pie

My cousin Amy and I have become the kind of clichéd cell phone buddies who have stream-of-consciousness chats of a frequency and length that has contributed to us both having to expand our monthly phone plans. During a conversation earlier this week about food, or our dogs, or both…prevalent topics for us…I told her a story from my past that she really liked and suggested I post online. It felt a bit wrong to base this blog’s inaugural dog story on a pet of 30 years ago that didn’t even belong to me, but my own dogs don’t inspire as many stories at their middle/older ages (they are 6 and 12) and are notoriously difficult to photograph – see example below. (Although knowing how dog jinxes work, I’m sure my having said that Billie and Marley aren’t up to much mischief these days will trigger a blog-worthy exploit very soon.)

After my dad's remarriage in the summer of 1976, it was of course expected that my stepmother Priscilla and her school-age daughters would move into our house, but that wasn't the extent of it...within a few weeks my stepbrother Steve Jordan began coming over for regular dinners, watching TV after dinner, dozing on the couch at night, and soon had pretty much moved in. Since Steve was no longer spending much time at his trailer outside of town, he had to bring his dog over too, which was actually the Jordan family dog. (Priscilla and her daughters had been crammed into a trailer in town (Tomball), while the dog had been enjoying country living with Steve. They had all moved from Colorado in the recent past for Mr. Jordan's job, but he died unexpectedly before their new Texas house could be built, leaving the family with temporary living arrangements and some financial disarray.)

Priscilla introduced the dog to us as Willy P. Jordan, and when I asked what the P was for, she grinned slightly and offered only, “It stands for P." I liked how Priscilla pronounced Willy's name, especially when she yelled at him – she has a high voice and from growing up in Nebraska, a slightly clipped, Midwest/Germanic delivery. She would hiss out the two syllables of his name very quickly, similar to when it took too long to think through which of her daughters she wanted to call and she would spit out their names in a list, "Pamela-Beth-Kristin-Cheryl-Debra..."

Until I pulled out old photos to use for the blog, I had planned to write that I liked Willy because I like beagles – I have loved, though sometimes concurrently hated, my beagle Marley for 12 years now. Willy was a mutt with some beagle features and coloring, but it wasn’t just the typical beagle spirit (merry and stubborn) that made me like him. He was stubborn but not so merry – until getting out the photos I had forgotten how sad his eyes were…large, sad hound eyes. Most of my photos showed my sister Rachel doing goofy poses with him – pinning down his ears, covering his eyes, and in one shot pretending to choke him. Willy was very easygoing with Rachel and me and immediately considered us part of his family. In a time of fragile détente between the Scholls and Jordans, Rachel and I found in Willy unconditional acceptance, and the unconditional warmth one finds in dogs.

Willy had a small head and large snout, very silly ears, rat-like toes and a long pink tongue. He was the kind of dog that always smells bad, even after a bath, and it goes without saying that his breath was bad…but he was full of charm. True to the beagle part of his legacy he was drawn to people, drawn to fun, and was very independent, what Priscilla called “ornery.” Willy knew he was a dog (unlike my current pets, who seem to think they share genetics with Craig and me), but he also knew his place was with people. (None of the Scholl cats had been so interactive – because they were cats, and because we never figured out how to bond with them.)

He got cheap dog food and table scraps, which I'm now convinced triggered his horrible allergy problems (unless, having been born in Colorado, he was allergic to Texas…which I guess is also a possibility). Within a year or two he was scratching incessantly, so much that he developed bald spots. Priscilla took him to the vet for what she euphemistically called his “hot spots,” but veterinary science was light-years away from all the skin products available now (I should know because I have bought most of them, including an expensive experimental Pfizer drug, for my dog Billie). The clueless vet kept giving Priscilla lotions and ointments to put on the bald spots, which only got worse.

Eventually even Priscilla stopped calling them hot spots and used the dreaded word mange, although I don’t think Willy really had mange because even in the 1970s there were probably decent medicines for a disease that had been known about for centuries. The scary pink-skin bald spots began to spread on Willy’s body like global warming areas in a time-lapse film, although in his case (and maybe not in the case of global warming, either), there wasn’t much of a lapse. One day after weeks of scratching and suffering, he disappeared. Priscilla kept saying he must have run away, but nobody tried to look for him – I think deep down we all suspected that he (that Priscilla) had found a final solution.

His end was sad and we didn't have a lot of years together, but I have happy memories of him, especially this one...about a special evening when Willy hit the equivalent of a canine jackpot.

Willy's food and water dish were near our kitchen trash can, which to try to improve traffic flow in this crowded room was located next to the stove. When not on the den couch Willy liked to hang out in the kitchen, where he could lick his food dish, sniff the trash can, and feel the warmth of the oven. If people were sitting at the table (and with such a large family, that was usually the case), he also did a circuit around and under the table, as space allowed. (A dog like Willy is accustomed to getting tripped on by his family.)

An American convenience food that hasn't evolved much is the frozen pot pie. Most of the brands on the market are still labeled, "microwave cooking not recommended," because the pastry needs an oven for proper crisping, and the thick middle of the pie needs long-term heat. It is a long wait to bake a chicken pot pie, but worth it - even the burned tongue experienced when after waiting an hour to bake the thing, you can't wait an hour for it to cool, is worthwhile. (In writing this I am assuming I'm not the only person who likes piecrust & gravy in fattening combination.)

One particular night Steve and I were hanging out in the kitchen, waiting for our pot pies – I think Priscilla and my dad were out at a meeting or concert, so we were going the frozen-dinner route. I was probably reading a library book or doing math homework, and Steve might have been reading the newspaper, a news magazine, or generally BS-ing with me. (It was fun to have a guy friend so much older than me, and I think he liked having a fresh audience for his corny humor and wild stories, which by then (he was 24) had started to wear thin on his mom and sisters.)

Pot pies then and now tend to come in flimsy aluminum pans that barely support their weight. The pot holders near the stove, a crocheted nylon set that had arrived with my stepmother, were not very heat-protective. (The stained Scholl pair, which had more padding and insulation, was banished somewhere.) As I was pulling out the first pot pie, I felt piercing heat on my palms.
Of course my goal was to lift the pot pie to the top of the stove, but somehow in my pain and clumsiness it fell…and up-ended itself right into Willy’s food dish, with its top crust down and its pale bottom facing a very eager diner.

There was only one undamaged pot pie left (which by making a fist-wad of two pot holders I managed to get out safely), and we had been waiting for the fallen pie for an hour, but between Steve and me there was no inclination to scoop it out of Willy’s saliva-coated dish.

And neither of us had the heart to yank this fallen miracle away from Willy. He was so excited, even though we could tell he was scorching his doggy lips and tongue just by getting near it. The impact of its fall had split the pie, which helped some of the heat start to steam out, but it was nowhere near being cool. I thought of pouring water on it to hasten the cooling process, and although my memory is dim on the details I may have gotten some water or ice cubes into the dish…but Willy was shouldering me out of the way, having attached himself to the dish like it was his destiny (which I guess it was).

My stepbrother was a tall, burly cowboy type who thought it was manly to hide his laughter – my best witticisms usually got only a faint smirk out of him – but he hooted at the Willy & pot pie scenario. Priscilla also had a tendency to control her mirth, but when we told her the story she couldn’t stop a laugh before she started tsk-tsking about the waste of food. (Trust me…Willy wasted not a crumb of that pot pie.)


Poor Willy rubbing a hot spot on his back under a kitchen chair – this was an early stage of his skin problems. In retrospect, I interpret the look in his eyes not as relief, but as something sadder…perhaps a dim doggy realization that there would be no end to his itching.

My sister Rachel bathing her canine buddy – note the flea shampoo. There were no fancy flea birth controls or even flea genocides in the 1970s – just Hartz shampoo or a Hartz flea collar.

King Willy on his sofa throne – obviously he spent more time on the pillow than the towel. The pillow was a hand-crafted gift from a family friend, surely not intended for dog use. Willy sure enjoyed it though...

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