by Chris Armentano
Sometimes you think you’re getting one thing, and in the end you get another, better thing than you could have ever imagined. It’s been like that with Tater, the little black rescue dog that came to us about six months ago. Though Tater had a broad handsome face, a noble snout and warm chestnut-colored eyes, he was still an odd looking little guy with serious issues: mostly with his hind end which didn’t cooperate fully with the rest of him. His white-dappled front half was muscular and sturdy, while his back half, slender as a chihuahua’s, was cockeyed and bordering on feeble. When found on the streets of Ocala, Florida, he’d lost the full use of his tail end and was dragging two injured feet behind him. He was in sad shape, but his tail wagged and his worried and intelligent face seemed ready to engage a friendly human. The rescue lady said it was neurological problems that kept his hind end tilted to one side and tottering. Given his physical problems, I wasn’t eager to adopt him but my wife liked how well he got on with our other mutts, and saw something in him that told her to give the eighteen-pound critter a chance. I’m glad we did because over the past six months, as the little guy’s physical problems have lessened, he’s kick-started my growing wonder at the canine mind and spirit. Golf balls and sunsets figure in too.
I don’t know what mix of breeds he is but there doesn’t seem to be a bit of retriever in his DNA, not by looking at him anyway. Those genes pop out when in the presence of balls, especially golf balls which, thankfully, are tough enough to resist immediate destruction by Tater’s rapid chomping, something he does about as quickly as a woodpecker drilling an insect-riddled tree trunk
Tater’s golf ball hobby is fine with me because I’m able to give my pitching wedge a workout without having to tramp around the horse pasture looking for balls in the tall grass. The game often starts in our fenced-in yard when Tater deposits one of his golf balls at my feet. Yes, he has his own paw-full of well-gnawed balls. While I set up for a chip shot, he dances excitedly while yelping encouragement, which he keeps up until I chip the ball a short distance in our yard. Often, he’ll pick up the ball and head straight for the gate that leads into the pasture where the real action takes place. He prefers the longer distances, say fifty to seventy feet, which gives him a chance to rocket his stout little body at full speed over the turf.
If he loses sight of the ball, he’ll dart back and forth with his nose to the ground defining larger and larger circles. I figure most dogs are near genius when it comes to odors, while their owners, me included, are severely challenged in this regard. Imagine trying to pick up the scent of a golf ball that’s recently landed in a tuft of grass. Your success depends on honing in on the few molecules that have become airborne since it landed. Once he’s picked up the scent, he’s quick to grab the ball and dash back to my feet, his frail back legs hopping and skipping at double time to keep up with his powerful front legs. Sometimes when his back end outpaces the front, his body becomes a “C” shaped torpedo. Back at my feet he’ll give the ball a half dozen rapid chomps before dropping it, which I imagine is how he puts his scent on the ball.
I’m not thrilled with where he stands when pleading with me to give the ball another whack. Usually, it’s so close that I’ve got to maneuver the club-head to avoid hitting him with the ball. So, though he hasn’t figured out that by standing in front of me he risks a painful confrontation with a golf shot, he learned pretty quickly that the direction the ball takes when hit is determined by the angle of the club face, regardless of which way I’m facing. He knows that the club face turned to the left will send the ball in that direction. If turned to the right, it’ll head in that direction. I know adult golfers who still struggle with the concept.
He also knows that golf takes place after dinner, something he doesn’t let me forget. I suppose I forgot to mention the little fellow’s sizable vocabulary. Not content with barks and growls that emerge from our other three rescue dogs, he states his case, makes demands and pleads with a collection of lively yips, snorts, squeaks, whines, whimpers, cries and a few sounds mankind has yet to name—for example, the sound “ermf.”
Then there’s the toy for horses called a Jolly Ball, a durable ten-inch red rubber ball with a handle substantial enough for a horse to grab with his teeth and fling. Of course, Jolly Balls are tough. They have to be to survive horseplay. Although the balls are considered indestructible, Tater has proven otherwise. The other day, he was busy jawing and shaking the ball like a predator might do to snap the neck of his prey, when he decided to bring it into the house. About half way, I told him, “Not in the house,” which caused an immediate return to his favorite spot in the shade where he continued to tear at the ball.
One of his lesser passions, not shared with any other dog we’ve had, is biting the stream of water that comes from the hose. His full body pursuit of the end of the stream is something to see whenever we’re filling buckets and watering plants. Unlike most dogs, he doesn’t skedaddle when the hose comes out. He attacks it with such enthusiasm that he couldn’t get wetter if he jumped in a swimming pool. I can’t say we ever had a dog as excited about running water as Tater, though we did have a rescue that loved the sound of whipped cream whooshing out of the can’s nozzle. Don’t ask me how, but I discovered she’d snatch the cream out of the air mid-flight if I squirted some in her direction.
Though Tater isn’t as handsome as our other three dogs, nor as good looking as any of the twelve or so rescued mutts we’ve had over the last twenty-five years, he has qualities the others lacked starting with his seemingly high I.Q. He catches on very quickly. I had to yell at him only once about trying to steal food from the other canines. “Outside” didn’t take him long to learn either.
I have to say the best thing he’s done takes place when, at sunset, he gets me away from TV’s intellectual holding pattern to head outside to hit golf balls. Our place is dead flat with west facing views, perfect for the magic that fills the sky with deep cloud canyons, towering cloud mountains, ever-changing vaporous shapes and calligraphic streaks dashed spectacularly overhead. Everything painted the colors of emotion. Tempestuous reds, soothing purples, sentimental blues, audacious yellows: all children of the sinking fire. Afterward when the sky darkens and the air cools, and Tater and I head back to the house, I know I’ve seen some of the Creator’s best ideas—the spectacle of sunset and the four-legged intelligence that got me off the couch to see it.
Copyright © 2021 by Chris Armentano