The dogs of our youth seem to grow in legend, becoming more idealized as we age. “Remember old Buster? He was such a smart dog,” or “Wasn’t Chip a good boy? He was the best!” someone might remark at a family gathering. When my brother and I talk about our first dog, we agree that there never was a dog as wonderful as our Rin Tin Tin.
My love of dogs was handed down from my father’s side of the family. As far as I know, my mother never had a dog as a child. Dad, however, often spoke of his beloved pets, usually with tears in his eyes. He always owned a dog or two, mostly strays, as had his father before him. One of the only photos I have of my grandfather shows him with my grandmother on an outing with the family dog. It was taken sometime before World War II in Greece. It’s a photo I treasure, since my grandparents look quite happy to be out for a walk with their beloved pet.
My father’s favorite dog as a child was Vero, a little mutt who went everywhere with him. Little Vero passed away when Dad was a teenager, but according to my father, there was never a more perfect pooch. Sadly, Dad also passed away many years ago, and stories of Vero have faded from our memories. But the dogs of my childhood are still quite vivid in my mind, from a time when life seemed to be so simple and our dogs were there to share in the fun.
I grew up during the sixties in a sleepy little town in northern New Jersey called Cedar Grove. At that time it was a place where there were still farms and plenty of woods. We lived in a neighborhood where everyone knew each other and there were lots of kids and dogs with whom to play.
Some of my first memories involve a large, handsome German shepherd guarding my crib. Did this really happen? I don’t know. It may just be a legend that was created long ago. Regardless, Rin Tin Tin, or “Rinny” as we called him, was certainly an excellent dog.
My brother, Chris, was six years older than I. Rin Tin Tin was still a puppy when I was born. He was my brother’s dog and constant companion. They were inseparable and created a perfect picture—like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Rinny was very clever. One of my first clear memories of him is from Chris’s tenth birthday party. I was sitting on our wooden picnic bench on the back patio, four years old and feeling quite pretty in my pink party dress. Chris’s friends were settling down for some birthday cake. They had just finished playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey. I was petting Rinny’s head, waiting patiently.
Finally, we sang “Happy Birthday,” Chris blew out the candles, and Mom began to serve the delicious-looking cake. Rinny especially loved sweets. He carefully picked out an unsuspecting child (I think his name was John) and approached him silently. As soon as John’s back was turned, Rinny snatched the entire piece off his plate and gobbled it down, so quickly that no one was the wiser. Before he trotted away happily, he gave me a look. He knew I had seen him, and he knew I wouldn’t tell. Poor John had no clue what had happened to his cake. He simply stared down at his plate, looking quite surprised in his party hat and plaid shirt. Mom quickly got him another piece and put Rinny in the house.
Rinny loved to dig very big holes and put things into them. (I can remember spraining my ankle in one of those holes.) He enjoyed stealing objects of interest and burying them for safekeeping.
Often cottage cheese from the milk box went missing. Back in 1962 everybody had milk boxes on their porches. There were trucks that delivered fresh milk, cottage cheese, and cream with the skin on top. It was delicious and fattening! In those days we did not worry about fattening foods. Most kids were skinny. We played outside and got dirty, too. Our milkman, Mr. Davenport, brought these wonderful items before dawn. That spring, there were several weeks when my mother asked Mr. Davenport where the cottage cheese was, and he’d reply, “I’m sure I delivered it.”
But Mom would say, “No, no, Mr. Davenport. I did not get the cottage cheese. Now don’t charge me for it!” She was quite firm.
Poor Mr. Davenport must have thought he was losing his mind, but the mystery was solved when Rinny left the evidence uncovered behind the big pine tree. I don’t recall whether he ate the cottage cheese or simply seemed to be motivated by the challenge of stealing it. What I kept wondering was how did he get that milk box open? He was a very smart dog! I don’t recall whether Mom ever told Mr. Davenport that Rinny had stolen the goods. I think she just stopped ordering cottage cheese. She would never admit that she was mistaken.
When Chris’s pet box turtle disappeared, we figured Rinny was to blame. Fortunately, the turtle managed to dig itself out of the hole. The teeth marks on the shell were what gave Rinny away.
I have a vague memory of Rinny having an affair with Poochie, the dog next door. Or perhaps I think I remember, because Chris said it happened. She was a medium-sized white mutt who was sweet and soft. Since, in those days, few people neutered or spayed their animals (this was not a good thing), Poochie may have had puppies. Perhaps the incident was covered up. After all, Rinny was practically of royal birth; according to my mother, he had a perfect pedigree with excellent breeding lines. My mom would have been desperate to preserve Rinny’s reputation and avoid a scandal.
I always felt that Rinny was my protector. Every night Rinny slept in the living room so he could keep an eye on everyone. In the morning he would make the rounds to each bedroom and thoroughly lick all of our faces to wake us up. He was always on duty.
As a child I was terrified of thunderstorms, and when bad weather rolled in, Rinny would come and cuddle with me. He made me feel safe. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he had probably been just as frightened as I was, and we had been protecting each other.
Back then the world was a different place. Maybe it was safer, I’m not sure. If bad things happened, we didn’t know about it. Kids walked everywhere, even to school. In fact, our parents generally kicked us out of the house in the morning and expected us to spend the day outside. We may have come home for lunch or eaten at a friend’s house—usually peanut butter and jelly on white bread. (In those days kids didn’t seem to be allergic to nuts or wheat, or anything, for that matter.)
A bologna sandwich and chocolate milk at Margie’s house was my favorite lunch. Margie was my best friend from age five to adulthood. She was a tiny girl with big green eyes and blond hair. We shared a love of animals, especially dogs and horses.
Margie had a collie named Dusty. Back then there was always somebody in the neighborhood who had a collie, because Lassie was a very popular television series. After lunch, we would be sent out the door again until dusk, when my mom would ring a big old bell signaling that it was time for dinner, and then home we would go.
Everyone had a dog, but according to my family, Rinny was the best dog in the neighborhood and the world. Life seemed so much simpler, and our parents believed we were safe outdoors to play to our heart’s content with a dog by our side. I can still see Mom, tiny and so pretty, but a force to be reckoned with, standing on the top of the back steps, ringing that enormous bell. And I can still hear the loud chimes echoing through the early evening air as we hurried home, our dogs trotting beside us, to see what was for supper.
Rinny passed away peacefully at the age of thirteen but his memory will forever live on in our hearts.