The Kokie Era was my introduction to what I call my dog eras. Kokie, whose beginning predates my birth, was a black Pekingese. And after one summer vacation, he lived the rest of his days with my maternal grandparents, Papa and Mama Gus, in rural west Tennessee.
It was early autumn of 1958 when my parents returned from summer school in Boston only to discover their Pekingese had apparently made a decision. Papa advised them that Kokie was a country dog now, and he had no desire to return to an apartment in Nashville.
Mom and Dad took him at his word.
By the spring of 1960, when my cousin Doug and I came along, Kokie was firmly established as the first grandchild and was treated accordingly. On one particularly sweltering day, Kokie became so overheated and miserable that Mama Gus cleared a space for him on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. She left the door cracked so he could get air and keep an eye on things. And there he stayed for the rest of the day.
When Papa came home and asked why Kokie had failed to greet him at the porch, Mama Gus revealed where the pooch had spent the afternoon. Papa bought a whole-house window air conditioner the next morning.
A number of dogs came and went during the 16 years of Kokie’s reign, but no one ever challenged him for supremacy. As he aged, and his health declined, his condition was monitored as closely as any fading monarch or pope. He became accustomed to daily meals of chicken, stewed and hand-boned by Mama Gus.
When he died, they buried him in a hand-built coffin, with a headstone and daily flowers fresh cut from the garden.
An era had most definitely ended. Along with Papa and Mama Gus, Mom and Dad and I wondered: What would mark the coming of the next one?
Turns out we didn’t have to wait long. On our last visit with my grandparents before Kokie died, he met and — we think — approved of our Beagle puppy, Ringo.
At the time, Mom and Dad and I lived on a fairly busy suburban street in Columbia, Tennessee. Ringo was hit by a car before his first birthday, and was almost immediately succeeded by another puppy. Technically, this was Ringo II, but whenever anyone refers to “Ringo”, it means Ringo II. As a matter of fact, even now, it feels disloyal to acknowledge that there was ever another Ringo.
Ringo’s first few weeks as part of our household gave us pause. For one thing, we didn’t know what he was. He had been offered as a free-to-a-good-home Beagle mix, but we soon recognized this description as hopeful at best, and more likely simply fanciful, if not fraudulent.
For another thing, Mom thought he was brain-damaged. He would rip through the house at breakneck speed, then ram headfirst into a door frame or piece of furniture. He would pause, stunned, then shake his head and start running again, ears flapping.
The ears should have been a tip-off. While not as long as Beagle ears, they were ample. When we took him to have his first round of shots and de-worming, the vet hedged his bets in the “breed” section of the intake forms and wrote, with some hesitation, “hound.”
The final piece of the identity puzzle fell into place when one of Dad’s co-workers, a psychiatrist from the horses-and-hunting set in Franklin, Tennessee, heard the “Boo-roo-woo-woo-woo” that Ringo had perfected in the last few days.
“Lord God, John,” he said, “You’ve got yourself a coonhound.”
The Ringo era had begun.