Ringo was finally identified as a coonhound by one of my dad’s coworkers, who instantly recognized the “Boo-roo-woo-woo-woo” he had perfected in the past few days.
As he grew up with Mom, Dad and me in Columbia, Tennessee, it was becoming apparent Ringo was not going to be a typical dog. For one thing, he was prone to attacking us. Rousing from a nap, he would yawn and lick his paws, smack his lips a couple of times, then pounce on whomever he deemed to be paying the least attention to him. His favorite maneuver was to grab a pants leg, then tug at it and shake it until it was dead. Also, I had a cast on my arm for a few weeks during that time, and he refused to believe it was not a bone.
He would sneak under the dining table and swipe napkins off our laps. If they were paper, as they usually were, he would shred them into Frito-sized pieces and wait for a replacement. If they were cloth, he would hide them under the sofa cushions. Usually, anyway — some of them we never found.
His preferred method of begging betrayed artful passive aggression. He would sit politely at one’s knee for a while, waiting for his cut of a peanut butter sandwich, a piece of cheese, some popcorn or whatever you were having. He had an internal timer, though, and when it dinged in his head, he would take a tiny portion of your thigh flesh between his front teeth and nip. On a good day, he could produce an impressive blood blister.
One summer afternoon, Ringo discovered a wasp caught in a spiderweb. It was still very much alive, trying to escape, spinning around in circles beneath the picnic table. I was afraid it might sting him, but he was wise to the danger. I watched as he batted the wasp for five or ten minutes, observing perturbations in its orbit based on paw used and direction of swats.
Twenty minutes later, he was still experimenting. When I called him in for dinner, he concluded his research by knocking the wasp clear of the web and stomping it, not leaving his station until he was sure it was properly dispatched.
Ringo’s New Digs
When we moved to Scottsboro, our next-door-neighbor dog was a magnificent German Shepherd named Rommel. Ringo had gotten along well with the Sunnyside neighborhood dogs in Columbia, where the cock-of-the-walk was a huge standard poodle who hated kids but was a perfect gentleman with other dogs.
Dad and our next-door neighbor talked the situation over and decided it would be best just to let Ringo out of the house and let Rommel and him sort it out. There was a quick skirmish with some yelping on Ringo’s part, and from that point on they were pals for life.
When Rommel died of a brain tumor, our neighbors brought home a new puppy. Pistol, we were told, came from even finer bloodlines than Rommel. If the neighbors were expecting any sort of Rommel-like gravitas from Pistol, however, they must have been sorely disappointed.
Though he weighed in at 140 pounds of muscle and teeth, Pistol had the personality of something like — I don’t know. Maybe a capybara? He loved the water. On hot days, he waded into the lake and sat with the water right up to his neck while Ringo sat ashore, keeping an eye on things. They sat like that for hours. Even in winter Pistol would go for an occasional dip, he just didn’t stay in as long.
Letters From Home
I spent my junior and senior high school years in boarding school at Sewanee, where I kept a photo of Ringo on my desk.
Mom always led her letters to me with Ringo news, such as:
Ringo is out by the lake, watching the boats and the birds. Sometimes he runs and barks at them, but today he’s just watching. Guess it depends on the mood he’s in.
Every now and then I would receive a letter from Ringo directly, dictated to Dad via tail-tap morse code. He always asked me if I could bring a cute girl Beagle down from the mountain with me.
I went home just about every weekend, largely to pile up with Ringo on the sofa. He had a designated quilt to keep the sofa from getting “doggy,” and when he saw it removed from the linen closet, he knew that snuggling was in the offing. We would lie there for hours, watching TV and reading.
During the school week, in my absence, Ringo took up with my Uncle Hal. Hal was retired, spending most of his days fishing and quaffing Busch Bavarian Beer. He and Ringo became quite the team, spending hours together.
Any time the family got together, Hal would report the latest to my dad: “Gosh John, y’know, I was a-sitting on the bank just a-fishing, y’know, and HERE COMES OLD RINGO just a-barking and a-carrying on, and he came and sat there by me, and I fished, and he sat, and we just had a wonderful time out there.”
When Mom and Dad moved to their dream home on the other side of the lake, Ringo made the transition well. He didn’t have any dog pals in the new neighborhood, but he was always more of a people-person anyway. Once, when he was nuzzling a friend of the family, she observed, “Ringo, I believe you must have some cat in you.” Then she added, “You never have had a normal dog, have you?”
By the time I was in college, Ringo was showing his age a little, but he still had plenty of moxie. One time my friend Tim and I put a paper bag over his head and tucked it in under his collar. It only took him a few seconds to get it off, but he desired to make clear to us his thoughts on such an indignity. Holding the paper bag with both paws, he ripped it into his customary Frito-sized shreds, maintaining eye contact with Tim and me the whole time. There was no doubt we had been chastised.
Nearing the End
By the time I started seminary, Ringo was having some urinary tract issues that made it risky to the new carpet for him to come indoors.
Mom fashioned a cozy lodge for Ringo out of a cardboard box in dry a corner of the carport, with lots of blankets and a 40-watt lightbulb. She even painted it to match the siding.
Of course, I let him in the house whenever Mom and Dad were away, and if Mom put two and two together about the dog-quilt-on-the-sofa thing, she never said anything.
The last time I saw Ringo alive, it was past midnight, and he was lying on his side in the yard, staring at the lake as it shimmered in the moonlight. I lay down with him on the grass, facing the lake for a while, before turning to look into his deep, dark brown eyes.
There was a fine, kind, brave, noble dog in there, but he wasn’t really Ringo anymore. The twinkle was gone. It was just a matter of time.
The inevitable call came on an early autumn evening, when I was alone in my seminary apartment in Nashville. Ringo had died while boarding with Dr. Williams, the vet who had tentatively identified his breed as “hound.”
Uncle Hal picked up his body and buried him a few paces from where we had watched the lake together, placing handsome field stones over the grave.
The next weekend, visiting with Mom and Dad, I only spent a few minutes at Ringo’s grave. No meaningful part of him was there, after all. I don’t think I ever really looked at it again.
On that dreary autumn Friday in 1982, I was pretty sure everybody who knew him was thinking two things:
There would never be another Ringo.
We were going to need a new dog!