Dena Barnes another dog rises from the dead.
Pet Cemetery - Nacogdoches, Texas 1963
My daddy said “There is never enough alcohol in the world to bury your sorrows if you're born tender hearted.” My mom was more to the point, saying, “Jerry has always been the tender hearted one. He'll cry over a stillborn puppy like he's lost his best friend, but then him and Janice will cart it off to that cemetery they've started down by Sam's creek.”
What Mama was referencing was a little enclosed wooded area, fenced with chicken wire between the trunks, a bent metal gate, what once served as a calving pen for an old farmer. It appeared to have the makings of a good pet cemetery to my five year old eyes. It was a beautiful, lush green space, as many east Texans know so well. Dogwood was always draping overhead in spring, with honeysuckle vines blooming all down the fence, Indian paintbrushes and sunflowers in the summer, and wild mums growing rampant there each fall.
It started with our burying deceased wood beetles in kitchen matchboxes. These “Betsy bugs” as we called them, didn't decay, so we could keep them out for a viewing, and neighbor kids who braved the heat and dusty roads up to our house had something to see. Then we'd solemnly lead the procession of children back to the pet cemetery, and allow each to bring a flower picked along the way. An audience and someone good at mourning was always better for a good pet home going. My sister Janice had also perfected a keening wail she could turn on and off like tap water.
Later, we might decide to bury an armadillo ran over by a local chicken truck out on Highway 7, if it wasn't too mangled, but they had to go in fast (and deep). Nothing died often enough for us, as even death moved at a snail's pace in the rural days of our youth, so we'd scavenge for the cemetery until the real thing happened. And sometimes, it actually was a cherished pet.
Pete and RePeat were our parakeets, and when RePeat tried to lay an egg too large for her tiny body, she just killed over right off the perch. We dumped Janice's school supplies from her King Edward cigar box, and set about preparing a velvet coffin for RePeat. We found a heavy red curtain in the attic, half eaten by mice, then cut perfect squares to glue on every surface. We scissored my dad's black dress socks for a liner because he never needed them for anything. "You kids go ahead, the Good Lord is more likely to give RePeat a better reception than I'd get wearin’ them, anyway." Dad would lean back, perfectly balanced in the straight back chair on our front porch, smoking a cigarette, loving the show of his two youngest building a parakeet coffin.
"You know," he said, "I thought those birds were two males, anyway. That's what your mama always told me. So when that egg showed up, it surprised me as much as it did ol' RePeat! Dangdest thing!"
Sad as it was, RePeat made a magnificent corpse, resplendent in pastel hues of blues and white, with just a tint of luminous pink against the black liner, her noble beak still held high. “Cover her butt up, so she won't be embarrassed,” Janice reminded me, as the egg was still visible and distracted from an otherwise serene repose. I felt bad for the bird, yet grateful we not only had a fitting funeral display, but a perfect cemetery in the woods for the procession that would take it to its final rest. It was a beautiful spring day, and I had my King James Bible, replete with white cover, and had carefully bookmarked all the good funeral passages with sprigs of fresh clover.
So, RePeat's funeral was to be a grand one, our largest to date, and we planned it for two days. We had a good turnout for that service, as Miss Reid walked all the way over via the log bridge from her house a full two miles away. Mr. Giles and Mrs. Cureton came with their old German Shepherd, which meant a lot, since Mr. Giles was retired from the FBI. When Irony, our old cat died from being poisoned a couple of years earlier, we had gone to Mr. Giles to seek his input and hoping he could investigate it. He did have a lot of time on his hands. Irony had survived many mishaps as a kitten, including my putting him in the butter churn while my grandma was churning one Saturday on our porch, and my uncle said it was ironic he was still alive. So his name became Irony.
Once, when we found a huge water moccasin near the Cureton house, Mr. Giles walked down slowly, leaning on his cane to see where we'd killed and bagged it in a toe sack, and lectured us about how dangerous snakes could be when you messed with ‘em. We listened respectfully, but knew we'd do it all over again any chance we got. We had a lot of respect for Mr. Giles, because even his dog seemed to be smarter than everyone else's. Once, when I was about five, going to visit Ms. Reid to pick up milk and eggs, I had to cross over the log foot bridge to her house. I was terrified, and it was the Cureton's German Shepherd who crossed over to me after I started to cry, and gently pulled me across by my shirt. The instant he gingerly took my collar in his mouth and pulled me forward, I knew I would be fine.
Following RePeat's service, there would be many others, including Rusty, our beloved apple headed chihuahua. We were rough kids sometimes, I think parents wouldn't casually leave their own children with us, because we were never indoors, swinging on grapevines over the east Texas creeks and tanned brown as berries. We were as likely to spend all day building forts along the creeks, catching turtles, tadpoles and crawfish. We played pretty rough too, I realize now in looking back. Our baseball games were always between all six of my siblings, with the older ones splitting the sides up so each had their share of young liabilities. It was during one of these games, when I was deemed too short to bat that my brothers decided I should swing standing on the edge of our front porch. In early years, we didn't have a baseball, and used big old hard shelled pecans, but we did have a good solid bat. evening party wears with sleeves
My first swing from the porch was meant for a home run, but it caught poor Rusty the chihuahua right behind his little melon head, and he keeled over without even a kick. I was hysterical, because I'd killed Rusty, even though I knew he wouldn't be as missed as if it had been our other dog Spot. Old Spot was a hunter, for both squirrels and rabbit, so he was handy as a pocket on a shirt. But, Rusty barked like a mad dog, at everything, anyone, even when the wind just blew through the wisteria, he would commence to barking like it was the second coming. I had witnesses it was an accident, so I wasn't concerned about too harsh a punishment.
But, we also wanted to keep Rusty's body from being seen by my oldest sister, Judy, because he was her constant, watching as she painted her toenails, barking when the lid on the toilet was dropped too loud, or even when a whippoorwill or rain crow would call mournfully from the pine thickets nearby. By then, I had also started keeping a good stash of coffin materials handy, so I knew a shoebox would fit Rusty just fine, and we quietly agreed to a quick interment, knowing we might even get back in time to finish the game. Then later, when Daddy got home from work, we told him what happened, he cautioned us again about playing too close to the house, breaking a window, possibly killing a dog, or each other.
What we hadn't prepared for was later that evening, when Rusty somehow regained consciousness in his little shoe box coffin, and apparently dug himself out of the shallow grave we’d placed him in, teetered up the trail from the cemetery and proceeded to wander inside through the back door, staggering a bit with just a little pile of red dirt still resting on top of his head. Dad was drinking whiskey that night, and I remember him shouting “SweetLordAMighty!” when Rusty blinked his way back into our lit kitchen. Old Rusty was fine, just a tad groggy for a bit, and lived for many years after that most premature burial.
Of course, we kids thought it was an east Texas miracle. I felt it might be a spark from my sermon, 'cause I'd been preaching full throttle from my pine stump pulpit. And maybe, just maybe, it truly was a miracle. I do recall Rusty held a place of high reverence in our household from that day forward. And the very next year, we got our first baseball and gloves from Western Auto down on Main Street. Blessings in abundance.
Life was good for us then, and it has never been better since.
Red DirtBoy ~ Jerry Permenter - Spring 2017