Disney movies are not always happy. Think of Wendy, John and Michael having to leave Neverland. Think of Pinocchio being tempted by underworld characters. What about the death of the drunken father in Follow Me Boys? But ultimately, Old Yeller, as Bill Murray pointed out in Stripes, may be the most sad movie Walt Disney ever produced. In Old Yeller, the Disney Studios squarely faced a tough issue that haunts kids: dog mortality.
In my short 55 years, I have proven to myself that I do NOT like this fact of life. I don’t even like it when people talk glibly about “dog years”–as in, when my dogs are seven, they will be middle-aged, like 49. Our family has had many dogs over the years because we lived out in the country for decades. Dogs protect people out there.
When my parents took me to see the movie Old Yeller in Bakersfield in 1965 in a huge, one-movie theater that offered real cool air from noisy swamp coolers (evaporative coolers) way up in the arched quonset hut ceiling, of course I cried. Children and adults alike have their own personal histories and relationships with dogs but one thing is constant: everyone cries during Old Yeller.
Major things that were going on with my family hurt our dogs, too.
In 1964 my father walked into the huge kitchen of the ranch house we inhabited way the heck out in Sanger on a San Joaquin Valley vineyard. He told my mother, “Start packing, Claire. We’re moving in two weeks. I quit.”
My mother almost fainted. She had lived in the Fresno area for 45 years, and she had four sisters there with whom she was close.
If that was not enough, he then told her where we were moving to: Lamont, California, south of Bakersfield. Lamont was markedly worse than Bakersfield, socially and educationally. And we moved there over the Christmas/New Year’s holidays, when the fog was dense and bone-chillingly cold. Once there, Claire would drive me to Bakersfield, the Big Town, for movies, and to check out books from the library. I was in the Weekly Readers Club (see photo). The southerners who had settled Bakersfield called us six-year-old readers, “Carpetbaggers.” Hmmm.
Basically, Claire wept weekly till we cleared out and moved even further south to sunny Palm Desert. Claire insisted on living in town, thank goodness, but civilization can be tough on doggies.
On the ranch in Sanger we had had a series of beloved dogs, in the spiritual tradition of Old Yeller: Scamps, Queenie, Rusty. Scamps was a real looker, a glamour dog, like Lady in Lady and the Tramp. Queenie was the most gentle, loving dog we ever had. When she had puppies, everybody wanted one. Then, somebody stole her, too. Rusty, a beautiful German Shepherd, went with us from Sanger to Lamont, but was penned in along an alley which the neighborhood kids walked to, and from, school — and they flat out tortured Rusty; drove him mad, in fact. He was so crazy after a year of such torment, my daddy gave Rusty to a junkyard outside Bakersfield, fearing to move the poor animal to Palm Desert (years later we found out poor Rusty had died of poisoning at that junkyard not a month after we had left him there.)
That was 1965. Seven years later, I finally got my own dog. Dad picked her up in 1972 at the Laguna Beach dog pound, a papered, pure-bred Walker hound female I named “Walker”–real original.
Walker never missed an opportunity to lope right at wealthy people in their brightly colored golf clothes, and jump all over them with her forepaws when they debarked their Rolls Royces to look at real estate–usually raw desert lots awaiting custom homes. Walker dug a three-foot-deep hole in our backyard, a kind of ground cave. My father went out back to smoke–mom would not let him smoke indoors–and nearly broke his leg in the hole. Walker would howl at the moon until she fell over from exhaustion. All of this adds up to: Walker was nuts.
We finally gave Walker to the owners of a fruit nursery so they could re-deploy her down in Mexico on one of their huge ranches as a sheep dog. Walker did possess strong herding instincts; she was just trying to shepherd the wealthy golfers, to keep them from making real estate errors.
I never really bonded with Rusty; he was my brother Stevie’s dog, and eventually grew dangerous. Nor did I bond with Walker, because she was crazy and I was crazy . . . about girls, by age 13. Hate to admit that leaving Walker out with the nursery people was not that hard for either of us, the dog or me.
In 2006 I finally got a dog after my own heart: Gracie, a pure-bred Jack Russell Terrier. Gracie was Narnian, a dog of such intelligence she spoke to me. Her breeders had told us Gracie was vocal, but . . . Barely a teenager, Gracie lost her life protecting my wife, Melissa, from a local rattlesnake near Westlake High School. I spent $6,300.00 trying to save Gracie, but she succumbed 72 hours after the strike.
Dog mortality: it comes sooner rather than later. I hate it. I cried when Old Yeller’s boy had to shoot him.
And as with “Young Yeller,” the reprise meant to make us feel better when the puppies bound through the grass at movie’s end, my wife, daughters and I now host Clover the Wonder Dog, Gracie’s sister, and Ellie Mae, Gracie’s half-sister (see photos).
But every week I think of Gracie, Rusty and crazy Walker, who threw up all the way from Laguna to Palm Desert in the ’64 Chevy Super Sport, and knocked over Grandma Roxie out back. “khent shune” means “crazy dog” in Armenian. I know.