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Fourths of July

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The Fourth of July has never been one of my favorite holidays. I’ve always tried to enjoy it, but the flag-waving crowds and noise were never fun for me. I saw the fireworks on the Washington mall once, but the fellow behind us kept shooting bottle rockets into my back. Fortunately, they were duds, but it still scared me, and the adrenalin got me in a yelling match with him. I’ve watched the fireworks over the Atlantic Ocean from Virginia Beach, too, but the debris that polluted the water just depressed me. And once, in State College, Pennsylvania, I went with friends out to a field where we hoped the distance would give us a good view without the deafening noise. Instead, an oppressive cloud system held the smoke in and all we saw were a few glimmers through a thick, billowing, brown haze. We coughed and went home. None of it ever seemed worth the trouble.

Mainly, though, I always felt protective of my pets, who were always scared by the noise. And the only Fourth of July that I ever spent in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, I had cause to worry about more than my own pets. As I sat on the front steps of my house, alone and anticipating my upcoming move from the town I’d so briefly adopted, with my five cats all hiding under beds and sofas inside, I listened as the noisemakers rose into the sky and watched as the colorful starbursts formed over the West Branch of the Susquehanna River across from my house. I did my best to enjoy the sight if not the sound. But then I saw it: a fat, scruffy basset hound lumbering terrified down the street—the middle of the street.

The dog did not move smoothly—it lurched and staggered—but it was moving fast. Every time another crackling bang echoed across the river, it would flail its head back and forth, its long ears flapping like birds in glue traps. I stood up and went to intercept it. Although the streets had emptied for the fireworks, as soon as they were over, people would be speeding home. I needed to stop the dog.

At first, it veered toward the far side of the road, but I could see as I got closer that the dog was old and was flagging fast. I stooped down and spoke calmly to him. “Come,” I said. “Come here.” He collapsed almost immediately in front of me, and I took hold of his worn leather collar.

It was all I could do to get the dog to get up again. He panted and heaved, and his eyes rolled back in his head. I thought he might die on the spot, but finally, after much soothing and coaxing, I got him to move toward the house. As soon as we got to the bottom of my front steps, I realized he would never be able to go up them—the dozen steep steps were much too much for his stubby legs. I also realized from his white muzzle and cataract-fogged eyes that he was not just old, but very old.

About this time, my neighbor and friend Deb came cruising around the corner. She’d come a block over from her house to get a better look at the fireworks reflecting in the river water, but she ended up helping me carry the dog up to my front porch, where he cowered under the wrought-iron patio couch. Deb was much more connected in the community than I was, and she said that she’d find out whose dog it was. In the meantime, I went in and got a bowl of water and a few dry crackers to feed him. He came out from under the couch and wagged his tail once before slurping down the water.

Deb and I noticed that the dog wasn’t in the greatest of shape. His toenails protruded like talons, and his fur had shed itself all over us as we lifted him up the steps. I began to pull off piles of dead hair from his back. Oily and smelly, it was clumped all over his body. He clearly hadn’t been brushed or bathed in months if not years, so I retrieved a brush and a shedding blade and went to work. Deb went off to see if she could find out where he’d come from.

The dog put his head in my lap and enjoyed his brushing. Though he still shook a bit when the fireworks went off, he stretched and rolled over for a belly rub. I brushed until I had a solid pile of fur as big as a twelve-pound cat. He nudged my knee with his nose every time I slowed down. “You haven’t had much attention lately, have you?” I asked him, and he licked my hand.

After a few minutes, Deb showed up with the dog’s owner in tow. The woman seemed thoroughly irritated, though she expressed relief that we’d gotten the dog off the street. In her haste to come and get him, she hadn’t brought a leash, and Deb suggested we at least give her a bit of rope so the dog wouldn’t get spooked by the traffic, both automotive and pedestrian, now streaming away from the fireworks site. And without further ado, the woman dragged the dog down the grass slope beside the front steps and off down the street. It struggled to keep up with her.

Deb trembled as she told me that she’d found a gate wide open from the alley into a dank, bricked townhouse yard filled with feces. On the front porch of the same house, a party was in progress, and when Deb asked if they were missing a basset hound, she got blank stares. Finally, Deb had been motioned inside and had followed the woman through to the back door. “I guess someone forgot to close the gate,” the woman said. “He’s really scared of the fireworks.”

Deb asked gingerly if the dog shouldn’t have been in the house, since it was a mere two blocks from fireworks central. The woman explained with a shrug that it had been a family pet, but that since the kids were grown it “just stays in the back yard.”

Deb and I sat on my front porch with the enormous pile of smelly fur I’d combed off the dog, watching people strolling home after their pleasant celebratory evening and wishing that we could do something for the old basset hound. “They must never even take it round the block for a walk,” she said, speaking from her knowledge as a frequent dog-walker. “I thought I knew all the dogs in the neighborhood. But I’ve never seen that one.” She swore she would check on it again.

We thought about our own pets that had grown old—decrepit, maybe, but never ignored, never neglected the way this dog was. We thought about the menagerie of feral cats we’d been working on rescuing over the past months. We knew there were animals worse off than this one as well as ones better off. But, still, we thought it a shame that its people would consign its aching, old body to a brick courtyard and no human comfort even in times of fear and peril.

It’s difficult to write about animals without sentimentality. And sentimentality is a bugaboo for positive thinkers and realists alike. It’s something I’ll explore more in this blog at some point. But every Fourth of July, I think of that old basset hound floundering down the street in terror, while oblivious people, even his own people, celebrated whatever it was they celebrated—democracy, supposedly, independence, maybe, freedom, perhaps, or just a day off work and an excuse to get drunk and make dangerous noise while other creatures cowered and fled. This habit seems so American. Sometimes I wish our public celebrations of our nationhood would reflect some other, better American qualities.

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