Bill Henderson is the founder of Pushcart Press and editor and publisher of the annual Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, he has written a few memoirs, including All My Dogs: A Life.
Every boy should have two things: a dog and a mother willing to let him have one.—Anonymous
I first met Duke at Walter’s house. Walter and I were both 10, friends from suburban Philadelphia’s Penn Wynne Elementary School.
We hung out together after school, hunting for crawfish, salamanders, frogs and snakes in a small creek nearby, then shooting hoops in his driveway. His dad bought one of the first new TVs in the neighborhood.
On the afternoon of October 3, 1951, Walter and I decided to check out the Giants/Dodgers playoff game. The winner would seize the National League championship. We didn’t care who won—we were Phillies fans. We popped two Pepsis and waited for the Dodgers to clinch it.
Up came the Giants’ Bobby Thomson with two outs and two men on base. At 3:58 pm he smacked a homer—“the shot heard round the world,” the papers would call it—and won the pennant for the Giants. Screams. Tears. Bedlam. The announcer at the Polo Grounds went berserk.
Next to the TV, Walter’s new puppy, Butch, caught the fever and howled with the crowd. He then tore around the house, upstairs and downstairs, and in utter abandon, peed on Walter’s dad’s favorite chair.
That did it for Walter’s dad. “That dog’s gone tomorrow,” he bellowed.
Walter begged for a reprieve. But Butch had snapped his dad’s last synapse. It was the pound for Butch the next morning, and probably extermination.
“Can I have him?” I meekly asked.
“Anything, just get him out of here. He’s destroyed half the house.”
Walter and I found a rope to fasten to Butch’s collar. I promised Walter, who was morose, that he could visit any time he wanted. It’s like we’d share Butch. He hugged his dog goodbye and off I set for my house, schoolbooks in one hand, Butch’s rope in the other.
All the neighborhoods between Walter’s home and mine were the same: two-story frame or brick houses on a quarter of an acre with a tree in the yard or maybe two, and a one-car garage. They resembled the toy train villages in my Lionel collection. Not far off was Smith’s Pond, a doomed swamp that would become our dream world.
I escorted Butch through the front door and called out to Mom in the kitchen: “Can I bring a friend home for dinner?”
“Sure,” she called back gladly.
I’d gotten halfway to “yes,” with her “sure,” but the tough part was ahead. We already had that pen of turtles out back, a slither of snakes in the cellar, Boots the cat, Petie the canary, and Pretty Boy the parakeet. Butch might be too much for Mom.
“Can I keep him? Walter gave him to me,” I announced rounding the kitchen corner. “They’re maybe going to kill him tomorrow.”
She sighed, thought it over for a few minutes and then delivered the classic line of mom acquiescence: “Only if you take care of him.”
So Butch came to stay. Quickly he became Duke, because Butch sounded to me like a juvenile delinquent and I wanted a dignified dog.
Duke would indeed turn into nobility, even though he was a thoroughbred mutt—some sort of Spaniel mixed with whatever. Springer Spaniel, I guessed, because of his talent of jumping straight up and looking around for rabbits and pheasants at Smith’s Pond. In a year, he grew to 45 pounds of white-and-black, floppy-eared, tick-collecting, field-romping primal force.
At Smith’s Pond, Duke began to teach me what I’d need to remember and would forget and remember again decades later.
Smith’s Pond was the last hint of wilderness in Penn Wynne. No cute lawns and asphalt driveways, just cattails, mud and murk. And no rules. Duke and I lived for this.
We hunted at Smith’s Pond many days after school. Duke had his own agenda—snaring pheasants and rabbits. In this, he was defeated daily. For my collection, I lusted after the beautiful painted pond turtles sunning themselves far out on logs in the murk; or giant bullfrogs lurking in the rushes at pond’s edge; or the wily and huge water snakes, who could do real damage with their teeth, unlike their smaller relatives in my cellar zoo.
Duke and I didn’t care that we bagged nothing at Smith’s Pond. I already had enough reptiles and amphibians. What mattered was the pond itself—about the size of a city block. It was all ours. I never saw another kid or adult there, even though developments encroached on every side and traffic constantly roared from a highway.
Obviously, the pond and everything in it was under a death sentence. Soon, it was plowed under, burying our marvelous friends without a thought. A half-dozen asbestos-sided stick jobs went up, with perfect patios, jolly barbeque sets and TVs with seven channels. The taming of Penn Wynne was complete. An immense boredom settled over the town.