In mid-winter of 1988, my Basset-Pointer mix, Bandit, and I had been living with our pal Bill in an unheated 9th Avenue mill house for more than eight months. Up through Christmas at least, neither one of us felt especially dissatisfied with the situation. Even when our kerosene heater died, it seemed like a minor hiccup. We were sheltered from the wind and the rain after all, and we had plenty of blankets and spare sleeping bags for our few guests who didn’t supply their own.
It was during a visit from my Sewanee pal Harry that I got the first inkling that maybe something needed to be done about our accommodations. Harry was getting his master’s degree in forestry, so he brought with him a top-of-the-line REI sleeping bag. Just before we dozed off, he said, “Boy. Life sure takes some funny turns, doesn’t it? Here we are, two college graduates, working on graduate degrees, went to a pretty decent prep school, huddled around a dog for warmth.”
Sure, my future wife, DebbieMiller, had complained about my housing situation. Women always do that. It’s part of the unwritten code. But if Harry said something — well.
Upgrading the Sleeping Bag
After a few weeks of searching, Bandit and I settled on a duplex a half-block from the most recent addition to Maple Hill Cemetery. It had heat. There were two, window air conditioners of 1960s vintage, which easily replicated meat-locker conditions, but also slurped electricity on a par with industrial aluminum smelters.
I was beginning an eight-month hitch with Space Camp, so I fashioned a zipline in the unfenced back yard whereby Bandit might answer his morning call of nature while I showered.
I also built a platform so he could keep an eye on the neighborhood while I was away. His vantage point offered far greater visibility than the sliver of yard and sky at our old place — a full block of street action to the north, east and south.
Our “Big Walk” was an after-work custom, with a couple of shorter jaunts through the evening. There was a pentecostal church that kept odd hours just across the street from Maple Hill, so we often had music to accompany us as we strolled.
On one of our long walks, we saw a for sale sign on a house I always thought was abandoned. The yard had always been obscured with scrubby trees, and the house itself had been covered over with decades worth of English ivy. Bandit and I investigated.
The backyard held a black walnut tree and was crossed by a small limestone outcrop. Upon closer inspection, we saw that this prime play zone was still populated with Matchbox cars and toy soldiers, their missions completed years ago.
A pane of glass had been broken out of the side door — an old-fashioned three-light model, common to any depression-era farmhouse. We let ourselves in to discover a tiny galley-style kitchen, tricked out with avocado green Kenmore appliances that were advanced and expensive when they were installed in the age of avocado.
The living room featured a swanky 60s-era fireplace with a Franklin stove insert. I could easily picture Bandit warming his bones here.
The moment of truth came, though, when we entered a central, two-story area connecting the living room, bedroom, bathroom and a former porch. Here was a fire-engine red spiral staircase, surmounted by an enormous grey tabby cat. He took a gander at Bandit and me, yawned, then returned to dozing.
That was it. Bandit and I agreed; we had been given blessing and benediction by the house spirits (i.e., the cat) to make this our home.
Home Is Where the Hound Is
We soon found that the place had been repossessed by Redstone Federal Credit Union, and they were selling it for what they thought the lot might be worth.
Before I even moved the TV or microwave, I was determined to give Bandit the fenced yard he deserved. I strung up rabbit wire between the trees, producing a low-key barrier more than adequate to hold the likes of Bandit. We probably could have kept him up with a strand or two of yarn.
My pal Tim used his Milwaukee Sawzall to cut a hole for a dog door, and just like that Bandit was an indoor-outdoor dog. He could lounge on the sofa or bask in the sunshine, as his notions led him, and he would no longer have to rely on me for his bathroom breaks.
With the coming of an always-accessible hole in one’s wall, however, there also comes a risk of interlopers. The first of these was a diminutive, solid black cat. She had been hanging around for a few days, so I gave her some of Bandit’s food on the front porch. In a day or two, she decided to eliminate the middleman, coming inside to have a nosh straight from Bandit’s bowl.
The next grocery trip we bought a sack of cat food, and Bandit had a partner. We named her Foncee, from the French word for “dark.” We had pondered Noiree from the French for black, but in print it looked like a misspelling of “nosirree,” and when spoken, it lacked euphony.
Team Bandit in Action!
A few months after Foncee became a full-fledged member of the household, Bandit started to bark and act disturbed at odd intervals. For days if not weeks, I chalked it up to too many mushrooms on his pizza and didn’t think much more about it.
One evening, though, as we were watching TV, I heard the dog door flap. That was odd, as Bandit and Foncee were both on the sofa with me.
We all ran into the dog room, where we found a fat raccoon shoveling Bandit’s dog food into his mouth with both hands. I told him to scram, and he did, but like it was his idea, not mine.
We secured a trap from animal services, and one night when DebbieMiller was visiting, we heard the inevitable KER-SLANG of its snapping. The raccoon was unharmed as intended, but Bandit was uncharacteristically alarmed by his presence, and his incessant barking sent our guest into a panic.
Deb went home, and I took the raccoon up to Monte Sano State Park. He made scary noises all the way and ripped up the newspapers and blanket I set the trap on. But when I finally released him, he skedaddled with no apparent hard feelings.
Nothin’ But a Hound Dog
Bandit developed a devoted fan base over the years, but his true star turn came when he appeared in “Bathroom Humor,” a farcical romp presented by Theatre Huntsville.
I had been cast to play an out-of-work actor making a living as an Elvis impersonator, “The Big El.” It was a great role, but I was feeling guilty about how much time I was spending away from Bandit. I asked the director if we might cast Bandit as “Hound Dog Little El,” and she loved the idea.
During performances, I would place Little El’s gold Napoleonic collared, royal blue cape around his neck, then cavort about the stage for four minutes to the live version of “Burning Love.” Sitting atop the simulated bathroom vanity, Bandit would look over his shoulder at the audience, yawn, and generally do what little was necessary for a pooch of his winsomeness to steal the show.
He received that year’s award for “Best Bit Player,” but the judges split it with me because he was my dog. Thereafter, in correspondence, he was referred to as “The Award-Winning Bandit Oover-Dog Hall.”
As It Must To All Dogs….
As Bandit aged, he became even more mellow, and even more endearing to our houseguests. It never occurred to me to close Bandit up or lock him out in the backyard when we had dinner guests or parties. He never begged or tried to steal any food. We have dozens of photos of people sitting on the sofa with a comradely arm around him, just as they might do with a human.
Toward the end of his life, Bandit was getting cold-natured, and he spent much of his last winter in this world wrapped up in an old down sleeping bag I gave him. I knew he didn’t have much time left, and I couldn’t help thinking about what sort of dog might be his successor. I even found myself fooling around with a name, Teasdale.
On the second Saturday of February 1996, which was unusually warm, Deb and I went with some friends to the Jaycees Spring Antique Show. When I got home, Bandit lay down with me for a nap. When I awoke, he was not in the room, but I figured he was probably just out in the yard. He was, indeed, lying in the yard, but it only took a few seconds to realize that something wasn’t right. When I got to him, he was still warm, but I could do nothing to revive him.
He laid in state on the sofa while I wrote his obituary. We buried him at sunset.
I am not generally a superstitious person, but I have never attended another Jaycees Spring Antique Show. To a remarkable degree, others understand this decision. As one particularly perceptive friend acknowledged, “It makes your dog die.”
Scant days after Bandit’s burial, DebbieMiller insisted that I begin my search for a new dog now — sooner, not later.
“You’re not yourself without a dog,” she diagnosed. She was right, but I had no idea it was so obvious.
There would never be another Bandit, so I was determined to go as far in the other direction as I could with the household’s next dog, and I succeeded. Yikes.
Next Time: Teasdale, The Destroyer