Friday, October 16, 2009

Labs, Monkeys, Pirates and the Essence of Fear

My late wife, Karen, was blind, and used guide dogs to permit her full mobility. Karen’s first Seeing Eye dog was an incredible female German Shepherd named Lyric. She was a long-haired shepherd, gorgeous, and full of dignity. A tad oversensitive (the chaos of a crowded K-Mart would sometimes make her vomit, for instance), she nevertheless remains one of my favorite dogs ever. (OK, that’s a stupid thing to say, I see as I write this. They’re pretty much all one of my favorite dogs ever. Except Levi, of course. He’s my favorite dog ever!). Karen got Lyric right after college graduation, and Lyric got her through law school and the beginning of her career.

When Karen first got hired by the DA’s office, Lyric asked to retire. Yes, she did. She’d obviously been slowing down, and her hips were giving her problems, and one day when Karen was heading out to work, instead of going to the door to get the harness on, Lyric resolutely stayed on the couch. When Karen went up to her, Lyric did that dog thing, where they rub their muzzle with both paws and then sort of wave with one. Lyric was done. She’d retired herself.

Luckily, Karen had anticipated this possibility, and was already set to get her next Seeing Eye dog (by the way, “Seeing Eye” is a registered trademark of The Seeing Eye, Inc., the world’s first guide dog school, located in Morristown, NJ. Guiding Eyes for the Blind is the other major guide dog school in America, in California. There used to be a fierce, and to my mind, comical hatred between the organizations, which I hear is fading. The generic term is “guide dog” but that’s why I always capitalize “Seeing Eye.” OK, back to the narrative.)

Lyric was an overly sensitive, somewhat neurotic, dog, who we often said was a college girl in her previous life, probably a post-grad poetry major. The dog Karen came home with from her second stay at The Seeing Eye was a whole other kettle of fish.

Vinnie was a smallish black lab, and though he was a fine working dog, his personality was just what you’d expect from a lab. He was very silly, goofy, impulsive, hungry, and friendly to anyone. He could guide Karen brilliantly, but he didn’t provide the same level of security Karen had come to appreciate from having a German shepherd at her side. Not only did Vinnie look friendly, but we soon realized that he offered only faux protection for Karen, because, as we often said, he’d be licking the sweat off the butt of the rapist as Karen was violated. Happily, it never came to that. And, as I said, he was a good worker, not as brilliant as Lyric or Arthur, Karen’s third dog, but more than adequate.

Vinnie was the darling of the court system, loving and loved by all. If the court wasn’t comfortable for him, something was done. For instance, once this wheelchair bound DA brought a monkey into court, allegedly some kind of helper monkey.

It wasn’t, though. This guy, Pete, had a mail order wife from the Orient somewhere, and my guess is the monkey was some kind of bonus that came with the wife. In any event, it wasn’t trained professionally by anyone, it wore a diaper, and, bottom-line, it was a damn monkey!

Pete had been bringing the monkey to court for a few weeks before Karen had a case against him. We walked into court with Vinnie, up to the defense table, when we first saw the monkey. It looked at us and made some sort of angry monkey sound. Vinnie ran full speed to the door before Karen could grab him. He had to get out and get away from the evil monkey! The judge had been apprised of the situation by his clerk, and he came out and banned the monkey from his courtroom forever more. He wasn’t going to let his buddy, Vinnie, be upset at his job.

Karen and I never vacationed. We were always either too broke or too busy, and when we weren’t we had between 8 and 10 pets. (By the way, when a Seeing Eye dog retires, like Lyric, they just stop working. They aren’t sent away. Lyric quit work when she was about 10 and lived to be just short of 16). But, finally, we arranged to get away for four days. Being the sort of people we were, we naturally chose to go to Disneyland!

We walked into the Magic Kingdom, and Vinnie was like a kid. His tail wouldn’t stop wagging and his eyes were shining. Vinnie thought it was the greatest place he ever saw! Everything was clean and pretty, there were lots of kids and the air smelled like vanilla. I don’t think I ever saw a happier guy. He was strutting like a Clydesdale when we were walking, and when we weren’t, he was just taking it all in, amazed that such a wonderland could exist.

We saw costumed characters and Vinnie loved them! He “got” it. I’m pretty sure Lyric would have been very upset by a man sized rodent, but it was all so good to Vinnie’s way of thinking. I think he even especially liked the minty lukewarm water that comes out of the fountains in the Magic Kingdom. He was ready to live there.

When we went on rides, one of the lovely, clean-cut, Disney employees would hold Vinnie on the dock, or whatever, and when the ride was over, Vinnie was thrilled to see us again, but he’d also made a new best friend for life with the kid holding him. Incidentally, a Seeing Eye dog is as good as a wheelchair for cutting lines. I can’t remember how many times we rode Space Mountain (which, I’ve determined, is the only part of Disneyland cool enough for grownups looking for kicks). What I can remember is how many times we went on Pirates of the Caribbean. Just once.

When we got to the point where you get on the boat for Pirates, the apple-cheeked teenage girl boarding us said, “Oh, take him with you. We have lots of guide dogs and they love going on this ride!” That sounded reasonable. I knew it wasn’t fast or anything, and that there was plenty of room for him. So the three of us boarded the craft.

The boat beginning to move was fine. Vinnie was full of enthusiasm. Then we entered the tunnel, or whatever, where the ride proper begins.

Here’s the thing. A lot of dogs, apparently, just don’t understand the concept of animatronics. As soon as Vinnie say the pirates, saying, “Arrrgh,” and shooting guns and cannons, he totally lost it. He began freaking out and desperately trying to jump out of the boat to swim to safety. It took both of us to hold him down and keep him in the boat. He was looking around, frantically, at pirates chasing wenches, and wearing parrots, or whatever the hell pirates do, and he couldn’t have been more terrified. We were under direct attack by cannons and pistols, weaponless, and maybe Karen and I were OK with this state of affairs, but Vinnie really wanted to save himself! After all, how could he be any good to mom if he was killed by pirates? I ask you?

Thankfully the ride eventually came to an end, and we took the very shaken boy back to the hotel. We were both pretty scratched up from his nails. Karen just held on to my arm for that walk, and held Vinnie on a regular leash. He was way too devastated to work, and, we feared, maybe too traumatized to ever work again.

It turned out that he indeed could still work, fortunately. But that night, I observed, for the first time ever, Vinnie having a nightmare, frantically moving his paws, his eyes almost REMing out of his head. I know it was about the pirates. We’d had Vinnie for at least five years by then, and I’d never seen him have a bad dream before. For the rest of his life, he had occasional nightmares, and we always felt guilty for exposing him to the horror he could never have imagined on his own. But we’d only been trying to broaden his horizons. It wasn’t our fault. It was that little bitch at the Pirates ride.

So, the moral of this story is, dogs don’t fully comprehend what’s meant to be amusing about amusement parks, and if anyone ever tells you that guide dogs like Pirates of the Caribbean, you tell them for me they’re a damn liar.

© 2009, All Rights Reserved, Rich Sands
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tashabud said...

Oh, poor Vinnie! And you and Karen gotten badly scratched by him! The story is sad and funny at the same time. Enjoyed reading it. I'll come back another time to read more of your and Karen's adventure stories with your dogs.


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