Stories & Lit
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How I Found My Dog: Tarnish
A dog adopts a family, receives her name and claims her chair

Tarnish entered my life in Eugene, Ore., in 1949. I was nine years old and my parents and I were living in an apartment complex on the outskirts of town. I played frequently in the surrounding fields and woods, and it was there that I was adopted by a bedraggled, homeless Golden Retriever. Initially, she would not let me touch her, but as the days passed and our bond grew, it became clear to me: she would be my dog.

My parents were against it. Our upstairs apartment was very small — there was no way we could have a dog. Finally, however, they succumbed to my pleas. I could have the dog, but she would have to stay in our woodbin, an outside walkin box where we stacked our wood. We discussed names, and my mother suggested Tarnish, which was the name of a lion cub in one of my favorite childhood stories (Tarnish, by Osa Johnson). I thought the name was perfect, and the Golden Retriever was Tarnish from that day forward.

Overjoyed, I prepared a bed in our woodbin and tried to persuade Tarnish to enter. She refused, and that evening, disappeared as she always did. My mother and I knew she slept in a neighbor’s woodbin at night, but I was sure I could get her to move into our woodbin the next day. Then my mother decided to get directly involved. After I had gone to bed, she took a flashlight and some leftover steak and went to our neighbor’s woodbin, where she was greeted with growls. She tossed the steak into the box and returned home.

Early the next morning, the neighborhood was awakened by Tarnish “greeting” the milkman as he attempted to make a delivery. She had left the neighbor’s woodbin in the earlymorning hours and was sleeping outside our door. After the milkman episode, it was decided that Tarnish could sleep in our apartment at night, but she would not be allowed on any of our furniture. That evening, she willingly came into the apartment and went to sleep on the blanket my mother had put in a corner. During the night, my mother got up to check on her and found her curled up on our best chair. My mother quietly went back to bed, and the next morning, moved the blanket from the floor onto the chair. It remained Tarnish’s chair for the rest of her life. Never once did she jump on any other piece of furniture.

We moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1952, and Tarnish’s chair became a fixture in my bedroom. During my high school and college years, we had many happy hunting and fishing expeditions in the Rio Grande Valley. Eventually, when it became difficult for Tarnish to jump into her chair, my father solved the problem by sawing off the chair legs, much to her delight.

After graduating from college in 1962, I was scheduled to leave El Paso in September to attend graduate school in Berkeley, Calif., and the departure day finally arrived. Tarnish was in her chair, and I lay on the floor to tell her goodbye for the last time. Cupping her head in my hands, I put my nose against hers, gazed into her eyes, told her no boy ever had a finer dog, gently stroked her and tearfully left for California.

Two months later, in the chair she had claimed as her own on her first night with us so many years before, Tarnish peacefully went to sleep for the last time. My father buried her under her favorite wisteria bush in the backyard.

This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 65: Jun/Aug 2011
John L. Shepherd in the '60s, was one of Silicon Valley's first programmers, then worked his way through a variety of companies, and became the president of his own. He retired in 1995, and recently took up writing. This was his first literary submission.
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Submitted by Ike's mom | September 3 2011 |

I am sitting here reading your beautiful story, tears running down my cheeks with a 140lb. "lap dog" sitting on my feet. Thank you for sharing your memories of Tarnish. I only wish it was longer! Keep writing, please!!!

Submitted by Katy Duhamel Ga... | September 29 2011 |

Beautiful! And to think that I thought my family was the only family that resorted to sawing off furniture legs to assist our seniors! Thank you so much!!!

Submitted by John L Shepherd | October 21 2011 |

THE LAST TIME – Another Tarnish Story

In 1961 I was home in El Paso for Christmas vacation during my senior year in college. Tarnish was advancing in years and my father no longer took her hunting with him. She was, however, always hopeful and ready, and so on a warm weekday afternoon I asked her if she would like to go hunting with me. I did this by enthusiastically uttering the single word “Quack”, which was the way I always asked her if she wanted to go hunting or fishing. Her joyous reaction to the word warmed my heart. I helped her into the car, and off we went.

I drove to a small secluded tumbleweed-filled pond located in the middle of a cotton field in the Rio Grande valley. Frequently there were mallards or teal hidden among the tumbleweeds and with a little luck they would jump within range. On this day there were no ducks, so Tarnish and I sat against a sandbank and enjoyed the warmth of the afternoon sun. Then, as the sun set behind the desert mesas and the evening chill began, Tarnish and I started walking back to the car. As we neared the end of the pond where the car was parked I heard the whistle of wings and turned to see three ducks silhouetted against the evening sky. I fired once and one of the ducks folded cleanly and splashed into the pond. Tarnish and the duck hit the water at about the same time. She swam her way through the tumbleweeds, gently grabbed the mallard hen, and returned her to me. It was the final retrieve of her life. It was a perfect retrieve in a beautiful peaceful setting and will forever be etched in my memory.

We immediately hurried to the car and, although it was not far, she was shivering violently when we reached it. I dried her vigorously with a towel, wrapped her in a blanket, put her beside me in the front seat, and turned the car heater on high for our thirty minute drive home. On the way home she stopped shivering and went to sleep. I thought perhaps she had left me. If so, it would indeed have been a perfect end for her life.

Tarnish recovered from her ordeal but her health continued to deteriorate. Neither my father nor I ever took her hunting again. For the remainder of her life, her outings consisted of leisurely strolls on a leash through my parents’ neighborhood.

Twenty years later, when my parents moved to California to be near my family, my father and I flew back to El Paso to retrieve his car. We arrived at the house and went into the back yard, where I kneeled by the wisteria bush where Tarnish was buried. “Quack”, I said. My father smiled and said nothing.

As the three of us left El Paso we drove through the Rio Grande valley for the last time. It was a September afternoon a couple of hours before sunset. The doves were beginning to move around before going to the river for their evening drink. The late afternoon sun illuminated a faint rainbow inside a thundershower playing along the west slope of the Franklin Mountains. My father was asleep beside me. I imagined Tarnish sleeping peacefully in the back seat. I was alone with my golden memories.

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