By Phil Deaver
There’s an ad on TV about the SPCA. Just 18 cents a day, or 19 dollars a month, to help save abused animals. The ad features long holds on the suffering eyes of dogs and cats shivering and lonely in their cages or being held in the arms of beautiful young female volunteers. When I see the ad, my mind goes back to Shadrak. In 1974 my ex-, Cyndie, and I had just moved to Charlottesville where I was to get a doctorate. We had no children and had been struggling with that problem for a few years. We were the proud owners of an Alaskan Malamute, Shadrak, age three. We got him as a fluffy little puppy in Southern Indiana when we were living in a great apartment on Meridian near 38th in Indianapolis.
In Muncie, on Sycamore Street, we had a nice little place with a fenced yard to keep him in, and for added security, he was tethered on a corkscrew post and chain. The backyard had no fence gate, so his only way out was through the tiny little rented house. It was similar in Charlottesville, though our townhouse on Stewart Circle was new and situated on a corner. Still we tethered him on a chain with corkscrew post in the ground inside a fenced yard that had no exit. To get him out of the yard you’d have to lift him over the cable fence, 95 pounds of seriously resistant dog. He loved to go for walks in Sugar Hollow, a back road into the Shenandoah National Park below the Blue Ridge Parkway. Sunday mornings, we explored those roads that turned into hiking trails, the dog off-leash and running free, such a happy boy.
Then one morning he was stolen. It was Memorial Day weekend, 1975, and my wife was due to deliver our son Mike in what we later discovered was 19 days. We were bereft at the loss of our dog. He was in a strange town. He didn’t know his way around. We tried to imagine how he got himself loose from the corkscrew post, jumped the waist-high cable fence, and ran away (still attached to the chain—it was a daydream; he was stolen for sure). He was a purebred malamute and striking, with the bandit’s mask over his blue eyes, and if you happened to be driving by and liked the look of him, and decide you wanted our dog, it wouldn’t be easy to take him unless there were two of you. I posted a reward, 100 dollars, in the UVa paper and in the Charlottesville paper, and posted it a few places around town on bulletin boards (the gym, Laundromats, etc.). It only ran in the paper one day. Our son was born June 19, ’75. The dog remained gone. Our son in a way replaced him. It was a new challenge, the usual sleep dep and division of labor, getting to know the new baby. My mother and Cyndie’s folks came to visit to see him. So did our long-time friends. None of them were much attached to Shadrak, and the baby over-shadowed that puzzling loss. The summer passed.
In early September that year I awoke hearing Shadrak barking. I looked out the upstairs bedroom window. I realized he was somewhere in the apartment complex across the street, which made sense. People there would have seen him in our backyard. Someone there would have stolen him so he could make some puppies up on the Blue Ridge. Then they’d bring him back and ask for the reward.
Labor Day, I was on campus and my wife called. Two men were on our front porch with Shadrak. The dog’s neck fur was bloody because they’d kept him on a hemp-rope all summer—if they’d have kept his collar it would have been obvious he was stolen. I came home, slipped in the back door, went to the front door, invited them in. Shad, in three months of being fed raw meat and kept outdoors without human contact, was changed, it was clear to me. They asked if this was our dog, and we said yes, and they asked for the reward. They showed us the clipping from the day it had run in the paper the week after Memorial Day, three months prior. I had a lot of questions.
I said, “Where did you get the dog?” They looked at each other, neither of them seeming to know. I said, “Wherever you got him, that’s who stole him. I will not pay the reward to the thieves who stole him.” I asked, “Are you the thieves who stole our dog and just happen to have the clipping from the paper for the reward which ran for only one day three months ago?”
One of them said, “Then at least pay us what it cost us to feed him.” At this confession, I saw red. I invited the two of them into the backyard. I had my wife call Herb Silvers, two doors north, son of a cop and a Vietnam combat veteran whom I snuck into Old Memorial Gym and boxed with on Saturdays (he loved boxing—I preferred to get the victim in a headlock and grind his face into pavement—I saw no reason for civilized men to go at each other bare-fists to the face). Herb, though, oh my, how he loved it, was there in seconds, bounding over our backyard fence to join a fight that was about to break out.
“These men stole my dog,” I told him.
“That proves they are pure, unpasteurized piles of shit,” Herb replied, and gave one of them a provocative shove to get things rolling. What a great friend he was. Cyndie called the Charlottesville police. The fight took about ten minutes, as I recall. I had a pretty good nick taken out of my nose by a flying lawn-chair, but I did get one dude in a headlock and was ready to administer the top of his head to the exterior brick wall of the townhouse when Herb tapped me on the shoulder as if this was his dance. I let the guy go, and Herb delivered a roundhouse right that smacked the guy against the bricks anyway. When we all heard the siren, the police en route, the two dog thieves retreated to their car, bloodied and unrewarded. I got a look at the Ford Falcon they were driving and made a note in case they should wander by on the way to their place somewhere in the vast complex across the street. I thought I might even wander through there looking for it someday.
And so the time began for us to try to reintegrate Shadrak into our new family configuration. He was not neutered (this was very unenlightened, I now realize), and thus we are sure sprayed cute Malamute puppies into the puppy mills of Virginia. In the past, he and I were pals, going for walks in the woods or, in Muncie, out by the reservoir. In the new life, I had a backpack for the baby, and as a family we went on long walks deep in the Shenandoah National Park. Shadrak was aggressive toward our two-month-old baby, growling, and, once, snapping. Michael weighed about 14 pounds, and the dog weighed 95. I began to dread the obvious, that the baby wasn’t safe, that Shad had been changed by his captivity. I worked on this, tried to get him to love Mike, but there was no margin for error. He couldn’t be trusted. Alone, the two of us, he was fine, but he couldn’t be around Michael.
We owned a VW I’d brought home from Germany when I was in the Army in ’71. The dog and the baby were often in the back seat together, untenable. One morning while I was driving the back road to Sugar Hollow, the dog growled at Michael. I cocked the rear view mirror and saw the bared teeth. Not long after, with a heavy heart I assure you, I took him to the SPCA north of Charlottesville, and they said if he was aggressive with the staff, there would be no way they could place him and he’d be put down. It was hard, hard, hard to leave him there. His warm blue eyes trusted me. It was a long drive back home. Two weeks later I called them to see what had happened. They told me he snapped at staff and that he would be killed soon. They said he was a beautiful dog, but that this stuff happens when the big dogs are stolen and mistreated. I have to live with this. The dog trusted me. I abandoned him and none of this was his fault.
In those days there was no Malamute rescue you could access online, and the SPCA had its hands full with dogs that COULD BE adopted into caring families. We knew no one in Charlottesville, no friends who weren’t themselves raising little kids. I still have a little scar over one eye and one on my nose from the fight in our backyard. I still remember Herb’s little lecturette about how if I was gonna get in fights, I was gonna have to learn how to fight, but I always thought I did pretty good that day (and if he’d let me wham that dude into the side of my townhouse, at least one thief would have been laying on the ground when the police arrived). I can still feel in the inner part of my right elbow how fragile that guy’s neck was when I had him in the headlock. I opted to let him go and let Herb throw a punch instead. I remember what the guy looked like, in fact what both of them looked like.
I’ll never forget the craven corrupt insanity of them asking me to pay for what it cost to feed the dog they’d stolen from me for the three months they kept him. They said what do you feed him. I said I fed him dog food. They said, “You can’t feed a dog like that cereal.” Wild horses could not have prevented me from slugging it out with them in the back yard. It was the post-Vietnam era. I knew my pal Herb Silvers would love to come over and help out. Charlottesville was a gorgeous place to live in those days.
That said, I still grieve for Shadrak, my pal in the days after the Army when I really needed one, and if I could, today, get a hold of those two fuckers who stole him, I’d unleash 40 years of fury on their asses, yard furniture would fly, and I’d probably forsake the headlock for one delicious moment of fist to face. I loved that dog. He was a pal, and he needed me. But I was a new dad and new to the protectiveness I felt toward my son. These days I still wonder if there’d been a way around giving the dog up.
About Phil Deaver
Philip F. Deaver is writer-in-residence and professor of English at Rollins College. He is the author of Silent Retreats, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and How Men Pray, a collection of poetry from Anhinga Press. Mainly a short story writer, he has also edited a volume of baseball creative nonfiction, Scoring From Second: Writers on Baseball, and publishes in all three genres. He learned to write on an Olympia standard typewriter, writing letters, a thousand or so a year all through his teens and twenties, back before the internet, email, all that. For those first many years, his almost greatest pleasure was simply filling a page with his own words. From letter writing, he learned his own voice(s) and discovered the characters who remain a part of his writing today.