Chains of Pearl

Note to reader

I lived this story. I wept as I wrote it a number of years ago, and even now I cannot read it without the tears welling in my eyes. The editor who published it a number of years ago said it was “How a boy—with the help of a loving dad and a loyal dog—learned about war, work, and the costs of freedom.”

At an early age I had a fascination for cameras. I used a couple of dollars of my cotton-picker money to order a little Donald Duck camera from The Johnson Smith Company. Incredibly, it took good pictures. I still have all the pictures I took with it, with the negatives! Among them are some precious shots of my dog, the hero of my story. The photo illustrations are from my Donald Duck camera, except the artists rendering at the beginning.

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My Daddy was wounded in the Argonne, so he already knew about war. Now, with four motherless sons beside a mountain of troubles he had anyway, here loomed the hardships of a bigger one.

He looked to the promises of the American West. Some said the farmers out there had cotton patches hard to see across, producing up to four bales to the acre. A vast country, they said, with plenty of elbow room. Why, out there, he reasoned, a man might break some of his fetters.

The Japanese bombs of far-away Pearl had fallen on every American. Like chain leashes they fell on our necks and anchored each of us to unpleasantries or led us away to worse. Remember Pearl Harbor stickers were yet on windows when Daddy gathered us four boys and left Oklahoma in an overloaded worn-out sedan.

Nine years old and youngest, I faced with every American those savage years. Everyone suffered in some way; for us it was living in board shacks, flea-infested sheep stalls, tool sheds and adobe cockroach hovels, besides the cotton patches, fruit orchards and expansive garlic fields.

Our more respected occupational title would have been Migrant Workers; local citizens frequently castigated us as “fruit tramps”. All of these negatives were more than my proud, steel-structured father could equate. Like every other American, I needed a counterbalance. I was too young to realize it, but Daddy knew.

So one memorable day in my life while Hitler was wasting Europe and the Japanese were enslaving the people of the Pacific where my oldest brother now served below the water line of an embattled aircraft carrier, a friend came over leading a lively puppy on a cotton-cord leash and said I could have him. I fell for him immediately. Oddly then, though no mystery now, Daddy agreed to it–with the understanding that, “He’ll be your dog, so you gotta look after ‘im”.

I asked my friend if he had named him yet, and he said, “Yeah, I call ‘im Possum”, whereupon the pup cast me a pitiful glance. So I renamed him Tip for the sprig of white on the tip of his tail.

We became fast friends from the start, and he quickly became an indispensable part of our belongings. Strangely, our separate lives and individual hurts somehow found strength in this bit of canine. Yes, he was my dog, but he was our common interest. We all missed my brother a lot, especially Daddy who knew the risks of combat. As a family, we would each pet tip’s gentle head from time to time and anticipate a grand reunion after the war.

The war months and years rolled and Tip grew, but our difficult and often close-quartered lifestyle burdened him with something he would never outgrow: That little cotton cord leash grew with him to become his chain. It took a chain to curb his insatiable appetite for chasing cars. The school grounds were forbidden to him. The only answer to his insistence on following me there was a chain. The complaints of close neighbors invariably resulted in a chain. If dogs can hate, I saw it in Tip for that terrible chain, although much of his lifetime would be tethered to one.

Increasingly, moves wearied my aging father. A farmer at heart, he was tied to the pull of other men’s harvests. No doubt the homing instinct rose with his years, and he longed for the Oklahoma hills to where he would finally return. But when the time would come for us to move to new harvests, the question never came up whether Tip was to accompany us. Car, train, bus, no matter how we traveled, Daddy made sure Tip was properly cared for. He became proficient at building transport cages.

Full grown, Tip was medium size, resembling a small Coyote, with the sleekness and speed of a Greyhound. Regardless of heavy feedings, his ribcage showed. His breath was atrocious, his bark was deafening, but he could run like the wind. I was an ambitious boy and he was a lively dog. Our mutual friendship intertwined until we were inseparable.

True to the times, he was a fighter. In fact, that was the only thing about him in which he chose to totally ignore me. I suppose he reckoned a good scrap as simply great sport. He positively loved it. His unexpected tactic of sudden withdrawal and quick re-engagement always took his opponent by surprise and got him the victory every time. I honestly don’t recall that he was ever defeated,even by some much larger dogs. I worried that he might be injured seriously by indulging in such hazardous sport, especially so frequently, so I chained him as often as it seemed necessary. But it never waned his fighting spirit for his victory medal to be only those dreaded links of iron.

Sickness and casualties were common in the lifestyle we led. Boils, flu, cuts and bruises were daily fare. Tip suffered severe injury once by a car as he bolted across the highway to engage a large canine opponent who trotted along proudly as if Tough was his name. I have no doubt Tip could have licked the dog, but not the car.

I told Daddy about it when he came home from the field. He always seemed instinctively wise about ailments in people or animals. He diagnosed his own bronchial condition as a reaction from cotton dust, but I now suspect it was from breathing poison gas on another field. He examined Tip and said he was badly battered, but he would probably be all right. Sure enough, Tip was his old self in a few days. But sick as he was, I had to curb his thirst for adventure by chaining him until he recovered.

The war finally ended and a devastated world turned again toward peace and order. Weary lives were released to won freedom, families reunited. We were all relieved when my brother returned safely from the Pacific, but Daddy seemed especially eased.

In the springtime we moved to Maricopa, Arizona where Daddy contracted with a cotton grower to hoe what seemed to me at the time to be half the state of Arizona. It was a wide, flat country with blue mountains in the distance. Our “house” was a small tool shed made of corrugated iron which barely held our few belongings. We lived, ate and slept outside under the stars. Fetters no longer held us; we all ran freely, laughed a lot, earned our wages and wagged tails. That’s where Tip found fulfillment with a shaggy haired female with whom he left six pups. Yes, we lived life to the fullest out there, having learned indelibly that the good things of life can be fleeting.

In March of 1947 one of my brothers married, and they decided on Fort Worth, Texas, as the place to rear their family. The rest of us were to follow when school was out, so Tip was sent with them to avoid Daddy having to build another transport cage. The last time I saw Tip was through the back window of a 1937 Ford sedan as it pulled away. Leashed to the doorpost, he looked at me solemnly as the car turned onto the highway and disappeared from view.

Two months later I read the sad contents of a letter from my brother; Tip, unhappy with his city chain, caused such disturbance they had to release him. He ran freely for two weeks then disappeared. That had been a month ago and he was still missing. They were sorry, but felt certain we would not see him again.

Somehow I realized then that Tip’s chain would not have been necessary for a farm dog in Oklahoma. Tip was another casualty. Now he was gone forever, and I sorely missed him. I rode my bicycle to a quiet place in the park and wept over the loss of a very dear friend.

When I gave Daddy the news, as I now recall, it seems a little more of the frustration of those four violent years eased out of him. He just looked quietly out the window for a minute then said, “They did right lettin’ him go, Son. Out here it was yours and his chain, but without you along it warn’t nothin’ but cold iron. Tip died a free dog. Nobody oughta settle for less.”

I suppose that was the lesson those flaming years forged into my generation: Some chains are necessary, but there are chains that must be steadfastly resisted at all costs.

Tip was running freely on instinct when he fell victim to the dangers of the big city. The ravages of time finally overcame Daddy, but not without resistance; he died at the age of ninety-one, and nearly to the end he was on his feet and on his own.

Dear to my heart will ever be the discipline of those Arizona cotton fields and Tip and my Daddy and America. Nobody oughta settle for less, chain or no chain.
–DA

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