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King-sized hole in the family is hard to fill

INSIDE/OUT

My mother called the other day to tell me my brother’s dog, Charlie,

had to be put down. Charlie was this little yappy dog who had been

around for years. He seemed perfectly healthy one day, and could

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barely move the next. My brother took him to a vet, who told him

Charlie had a degenerative back problem and advised him to put the

dog to sleep.

Michael was beside himself with sorrow, Mom said. He was

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inconsolable.

I didn’t know Charlie that well, but he was a likable, talented

little fellow who knew a host of tricks my brother never tired of

showing off to the family at gatherings.

“Hey, Davey! Davey! Watch Charlie do a back flip,” Michael would

say as he sat on all fours in front of the dog. “Come on, Charlie! Do

a back flip! Back flip, Charlie!”

Flip. “Yap! Yap! Yap!”

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“Again!”

Flip. “Yap! Yap! Yap!”

“Good boy, Charlie!” Michael would sing, then hug the animal until

the poor creature’s eyes bulged. “Good boooy!”

This, from a 240-pound alpha male who used to give me charley

horses mercilessly as a child.

But I understood. Dogs have played a long and memorable role in my

family. All of us are big dog lovers. Or little-dog lovers, given my

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mother and siblings’ recent fondness for little yappy dogs. Until

Charlie and his progeny came along, the only dog to paw his way into

our hearts was an enormous, black-brown German shepherd named King.

My parents got King when I was an infant, and for the first five

or six years of my life I just assumed he was another brother of

mine. He talked back when spoken to, destroyed everything he was left

alone with and smelled to high heaven. He had to be related. In fact,

the only thing that separated King from my brothers was that he was

almost always friendly toward me. As far as I was concerned, we

needed more brothers like him.

King was the greatest companion a child could ask for. He was

always in the mood to play and was a wonderful listener. I would talk

to him for hours about all my crazy plans and ideas about the world,

and he would sit and smile with that wide-eyed “Sounds good to me!”

expression of his. He saved my hide on more than a few occasions,

showing up with a snarl when I was being chased by bigger kids or

other neighborhood dogs. King had a strong sense of propriety: By his

reckoning, no one had a right to lay a hand or fang on me who wasn’t

family.

He also showed an amazing amount of patience for me as I learned

through trial and error what a dog could or could not do. The only

thing he showed no tolerance for whatsoever was the couple of times I

tried to ride him around the backyard like a pony. But then, I was a

big kid.

One day, when I was about 9, King got into a terrible fight with

Deacon, my Aunt Valia’s monstrous gray-white Alaskan husky. My father

and uncles rushed out to the backyard and tried everything to break

the two apart, including throwing buckets of water on them and trying

to push them apart with broomsticks. But it wasn’t until the dogs had

worn themselves out that they were able to separate them.

King was never the same after that. He moved about slowly, slept a

lot and almost never left the yard. It broke my heart to see him that

way, slinking about with his head down, like a prizefighter after one

too many bouts. He lived for four more years afterward, then died of

a stomach ailment just before my 15th birthday. I was beside myself

with sorrow. I was inconsolable.

It was years before my family would even entertain the idea of

getting another dog. Finally, my now-brother-in-law CP bought my

sister Linda a fuzzy, dishwater-brown Maltese -- Charlie -- as a way

of breaking the ice with her kids from her first marriage. Charlie

soon hooked up with an even fuzzier Shih Tzu named Lola, and from

their passion sprang the dozens of little yappy dogs who now rush

around the yards of family members and friends across Southern

California. To name a few of the mutts, there are Lulu, Hades,

Batman, Fatboy, Fifi, Toby, Max, Haley, Scrappy (who died), Sophia,

Chata (so-named because she was adopted by a gang member), Carlitos,

Charlie Jr. and a blind, three-legged runt we call Lucky.

These days, a trip to Linda’s backyard means getting run over by

hordes of little yappy dogs, rushing to and fro like packs of

frenetic fur balls. The animals have been passed back and forth among

my siblings so much that it’s hard to remember who has which. My

brother eventually came into possession of Charlie and Max, while my

sister Yvonne adopted Lulu.

The first time I walked into Yvonne’s home and Lulu ran up to me,

I was pretty unimpressed, and said so. I believe my exact words were,

“Keep that little rodent away from me before I call the health

department.”

I had carried a long-standing grudge against little yappy dogs

ever since a friend’s Chihuahua almost took my finger off the one

time I tried to pet it. But it was more than that. It bothered me

that a pack of glorified hamsters could cause my family to abandon

their idolizing of the legendary King. And after only 15 years.

What it took to win me over was a Thanksgiving dinner at my mom’s

house. I was sitting at the table picking at the remains of a turkey

leg when I felt something cold, wet and slimy press against my right

hand.

I looked down expecting to see my nephew Esteban, and instead

there was Lulu, looking up at me as though all her hopes and dreams

were riding on my willingness to toss her some turkey. I looked

around, considered pushing her away with my foot, and finally

shrugged and gave her the tiniest morsel of turkey leg. She promptly

swallowed it, licked my hand and walked happily away.

Well, I suppose she’s not so bad, I thought to myself. At least

she doesn’t just sit there and beg without end.

About an hour later, I was sitting on my mom’s couch watching TV,

when I felt something press against my leg. I looked down and there

was Lulu again. But instead of begging for food, this time she had a

rawhide bone in her mouth. I looked up at my mother.

“She’s giving it to you,” Mom said, “for giving her some turkey

earlier. She believes in sharing. Isn’t that adorable?”

I stared at Lulu and the rawhide bone. No one had ever given me a

rawhide bone before. It struck me as the canine equivalent of me

giving up a New York steak. Finally I reached out and took the bone,

and Lulu smiled and walked away.

“OK, that was pretty adorable,” I said grudgingly.

I’m still intensely loyal to my old pal King. He was the best and

greatest dog in the world, and nothing will ever change that. But

I’ve managed to open my heart just enough to a let a little yapping

in.

* DAVID SILVA is the editor of the Rancho Cucamonga Voice and

Claremont-Upland Voice. He can be reached at 484-7019, or

david.silva@latimes.com.


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