Probably the runt in a litter of seven, Chipper was born with a deformed tail – a show (dog) stopper for the pedigree breeder. The tail defect disqualified him for sale to dog show enthusiasts, but ironically it probably increased the quality of his life by an order of magnitude. Since breeders raise dogs for revenue, this gorgeous pup with a distinctive hump in his tail was doomed to be euthanized before my parents offered what they could afford to buy him as the family pet. (Chipper never knew his tail was labeled defective and had he known, he would not have cared.)
Puppy years for him were spent living in an old house on 14 acres of farmland with fields, streams and maple and wild cherry trees. Included was an old trellis with an ample seasonal supply of Concord grapes hanging down at his level. He would often help himself to those tasty purple bunches. He must’ve had instinctive knowledge of their natural antioxidant nutrition, but occasionally he lacked either self control or knowledge of when enough was enough. His stomach would growl after trips to the grape trellis and he certainly needed no laxative assistance.
Chipper’s adventures weren’t limited to food, since the property had a diverse rodent population: rabbits, woodchucks, muskrats, foxes. He widen their holes with his earth-moving skills, chased them into panic mode, and would lurk patiently, watching and sniffing the breeze from under a shade tree in an at-the-ready position where he could rise up and lunge into a full gallop in one impressive motion.
This gorgeous English Setter would’ve been happy to just live out his assigned decade right there where he came to know intimately each of the 14 acres, and most of the neighbors’ properties as well. (Side note: our family became unpopular with the Papoulius family up the street, because Chipper loved intimidating their sheep. To ease the tension my dad got permission to bring the adventurous pup to their property to break the habit. Using a long rope as a leash, Dad would let him pursue one of those poor helpless beasts for about 10 yards, then yell “No!” while jerking the rope backwards at its end point, causing Chipper to essentially flip over backwards. Chip was bewildered by this consequence. He felt no guilt; in his opinion sheep were too stupid to deserve such free roaming status. He never lost interest in the chase, but did refrain when we would notice him lining up a victim and utter the sharp-toned, “No!” )
The New England dog’s paradise chapter ended in the fall of 1953 when my dad changed jobs causing us to relocated to Kent, Ohio, a town where dogs were required to be leashed at all times. In the big move, since we drove to Ohio without a dog on the car roof, Chipper spent a lonely few weeks in a kennel quite certain he had been abandoned. At age ten I was jealous when the dog got to make his trip on a commercial airliner, although he was certainly uncomfortable in the unheated luggage compartment. We met the flight at Cleveland’s Hopkins Field with warm expectations only to be told by the American Airlines manifest guy, “Nope; no animals on that flight. Sorry… maybe tomorrow.” My folks were perplexed, since they had received opposite information when the plane left Boston. As our family was walking out in disappointment, I let loose an unauthorized, loud chirping whistle which I knew Chipper would recognize if he were in there somewhere. The sound carried down the hollow interior of that enormous warehouse and was returned with the sound of a congenitally defective tail banging furiously on a metal dog crate. I whistled again. From his cage stuck under a distant shelf, Chip returned a burst of assertive barks, which in turn caused my dad to get assertive with the careless guy back in the freight office. Chipper’s reaction when released from his small prison cell was a sight to never forget. He wet the floor (payback for the clerk), wagged his tail so fast his rear end was swinging enough to qualify him for Dancing With the Stars and whimpered almost constantly. I still tear up when recalling that heartfelt connection scene. For weeks, that grateful canine stuck by my mother’s side every time she moved from the room they were in.
Chipper had a heart every bit as real as our human hearts. (Years later, upon learning the definition of “unconditional love,” he came to mind.) Dogs demonstrate uncondition-al acceptance and they don’t hold grudges. They know when they’ve been mistreated, but instinctively ‘let it go’ soon after – which would be a useful characteristic for humans to embrace.
Chip lived the second half of his life back in New England where he was a loyal guardian of the teens as they built tree houses, waged snowball wars from winter forts and picked blueberries in summer to be sold to local markets. I think his sore belly bouts from the early grapevine days reduced his appetite for blueberries. He seemed to be content with kibbles and gravy, even in his last days.
My parents put him down while I was away at college. Months later I was angry that they hadn’t told me at the time. They thought it better to shield a young man adjusting to the change from high school to the more challenging college curriculum. But this dog and I had joined souls. ‘Better’ would have been being there at the time of his death.
However, as Chip taught, let it go. Forgive mistakes, relish the abundant memories, and be thankful. I am grateful – for the high privilege of knowing, living with, and learning from this marvelous creature for more than a full decade some 60 years ago.