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Yo, Rinny!

The Adventures of Rin Tin TinWhen I was a boy, dogs could be stars of television shows. There was Lassie, and Roy Rogers’s Bullet. But in my eyes, there was only one true star: Rin Tin Tin. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin was a TV series that aired in the 1950s. It was about a boy named Rusty. Boys could be named Rusty in those days.

Rusty lived with a cavalry troop, a German shepherd name Rin Tin Tin, and a kindly lieutenant named Rip Masters. Men could be named Rip in those days. At some point in every episode, Rusty would yell, “Yo, Rinny!” Then Rinny would save someone, or sometimes the whole cavalry troop, including Rip Masters. Anything seemed possible. So when my parents decided it was time to get me a dog, they got me a German shepherd, and of course I named him Rin Tin Tin. Yo, Rinny!

To ten-year-old kids like my friends and me, Cedar Grove, New Jersey, was an entire universe. It was so varied in its terrain that we didn’t need to use our imaginations to name our special places. There was The Field, The Reservoir, The Pines, The Woods, The Quarry, The Sandpit, The Tracks, The Tunnel, The Trestle, The Brook, and The Pipes. The only evocative name was Devil’s Hole, a deep ditch we were sure was haunted. We played, camped, and met in all these special places and explored them endlessly. I was often with Joey, Chucky, Jackie Quinn, and John. There were also a few others who came and went, and there was always Rinny.

The world must have been a better place back then, a safer place for ten-year-old boys. Or perhaps my mom was very naïve or very lenient, or she wanted to get rid of me. As soon as the weather got warm, I was allowed to disappear in the morning with my sleeping bag and mess kit. The gang would meet at one of our secret spots, stay all day, and then cook our own dinner. We’d spread out our sleeping bags and fall asleep under the stars. The only thing I can remember my mom saying was, “If you get into trouble, just send Rinny home.” Seriously. Just like Rin Tin Tin on TV, Rinny would run home and get the cavalry. My mom thought this was a perfect contingency plan.

Rinny wore a collar with a dog license, but I never remember him being on a leash. I also don’t remember Rinny displaying any less-than-ideal behavior or traits—no barking, no bad breath, and no pooping on anybody’s lawn (well, maybe sometimes). Many neighborhood dogs roamed free. There was Boots from down the street and Poochie from next door. Though, of course, the dogs had to have relieved themselves somewhere; perhaps people weren’t as freaked out about dog poop back then.

I never remember encountering any rain, mosquitos, or poison ivy during all those nights spent camping in the woods. However, my mom said I had a poison ivy rash so often that I became immune to the plant. I don’t react to it now, so that could be true.

In reality, Rinny probably wasn’t a perfect dog. I certainly wasn’t a perfect kid, but we were perfect for each other. It’s been fifty years since Rinny and I roamed the wilds of Cedar Grove. The only people who knew Rinny and are still around are my little sister, Connie, and me. In our family, any time Rinny’s name came up, and it often did, the response would always be, “Oh…that Rinny, he was such a good dog.” An alternate response was, “That Rinny was the smartest dog ever.”

How smart was Rinny? My mom swore he was smarter than most people. Of course, my mom had a low opinion of anyone who was not a blood relative (that included in-laws). Her most frequent descriptive term for any outsiders was “nincompoop.” I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my mom. She was different. She put sugar on tomatoes and salt on watermelon. But she was a great mom. The best.

At a quarter to three on school days, my mom would send Rinny to pick us up. To reach school from our house, he had to cut through our backyard and the Canarises’ backyard, go down Monroe Street, cut through the Pappases’ backyard (there were many Greeks in our neighborhood), and cut through the upper and lower athletic fields. This would bring him to the back door of Ridge Road School.

At five minutes before three, just before the bell rang, I could look out the window next to my desk and see Rinny outside waiting for me. He was even more reliable than the bell. When Mrs. Parker saw Rinny out there, she would get us ready for dismissal. Consequently, all the kids started to look for Rinny at the end of the school day.

One time Rinny saved me from monsters. My friend Chucky lived up the hill from me on Lakewood Avenue. We brought out the worst in each other, and we liked it. For instance, we were both obsessed with monsters. We drew monster pictures, and collected monster magazines and comic books. Our favorite movie was a futuristic, science fiction monster classic called Frankenstein 1971. I’m not certain if that was the real title, but 1971 sure seemed very far into the future indeed. It was very scary.

Chucky’s and my adventure took place at The Field. Chucky and I had almost blown up The Field the year before. Chucky’s father worked at a plant that made Formica, so his basement was filled with dangerous chemicals. The message to keep toxic substances away from kids was not out back then. So we poured every chemical we could find into a bucket, made a fuse, and buried the bucket in the middle of The Field. We then lit the fuse and hid it among the pine trees. The resulting explosion created a miniature mushroom cloud. Luckily, by the time the Cedar Grove Fire Department arrived, there was nothing left of the bucket that could be traced back to Chucky and me. For the rest of my life in Cedar Grove, there was always a big bare spot in the middle of The Field.

Now back to Rinny and the monsters. There was an abandoned building on the edge of The Field (which was next to The Reservoir.) It was probably a small office that a reservoir official had used long before. It was always just called “The Office.” It was always padlocked and deserted. One summer morning when we met at The Pipes to begin our day, Chucky showed up with a big hammer.

“We need to get into The Office. There may be monsters hidden there. Why else would they need to keep it locked up?” asked Chucky.

It was hard to argue with that kind of logic. The padlock was probably thirty years old and it popped off with the first blow. Rinny sat outside and watched us. Being a smart dog, he didn’t follow us into The Office. I’m sure that by age ten, I didn’t really believe in monsters, but I believed in believing in monsters. I can’t speak for Chucky, but obviously Rinny wasn’t taking any chances.

The Office had a creaky floor and a coal stove, and was filled with a powerful smell of mold. It contained one door, which we guessed led to a small, attached shed. If there were monsters, they would be behind that door. We pushed it open and found ourselves walking into a low, dark room.

The next thing I remember is falling. My chin and chest scraped the stone wall on the way down. When my mind cleared, it registered very dark, cold, and quiet stillness. Monsters became a real possibility. There was no sound from above.

Chucky was gone. This was not surprising; Chucky could vanish instantly. It usually happened on the way to school.

Then I heard the sweet sound of Rinny barking outside The Office door. I might have yelled, “Yo, Rinny!” I must have closed my eyes and gone into monster shock.

The next thing I knew my mom was calling my name and shining a flashlight down onto my head. What had seemed to be a cavernous tomb was not very impressive once my mom shined the light all around me. It was just a small coal cellar. There were no monsters.

Rinny was still barking and I remember my mother laughing, probably in relief. There were some metal rungs built into the wall opposite from where I had landed. It was a quick climb back to safety, sunlight, and the real world. The sun was warm, The Field was green, and The Reservoir sparkled as if scattered with diamonds. Rinny jumped up and slobbered me with wet kisses.

We went home and mom sent me to the tub. At least I had come away with some impressive scrapes on my chest and chin. I’m sure that when I fell, Chucky ran back to his house and told his mom what had happened, because his mom called my mom. But over the years, in remembering this story, it became only Rinny who had saved me. The coal cellar would become deeper and darker. The whole part about breaking into The Office became Chucky’s fault. My mom was good like that. (Well, it was his idea.)

Over a lifetime, our memories become our stories, and then they become part of who we are. Part of me will always be with Rinny in my childhood home, even though there will never be another dog like Rinny. And there will never be another place like Cedar Grove in 1959, a time when dogs could be TV stars, boys could be named Rusty or Chucky, and a kid like me could be saved by yelling, “Yo, Rinny!” Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.