Cline column: A boy and his dogs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 14, 2011

By Mike Cline
For the Salisbury Post
Bacon and eggs, peanut butter and jelly, a boy and a dog.
Three natural combinations.
I can identify with them all.
I am a dog person. Until now, with the exception of my college days, I have had dogs my entire life.
When I came along, back when Nero fiddled, my parents had two jet-black cocker spaniels, Midnight and Bruce. Yes, Bruce. Midnight was Bruce’s father. I really have no memories of Midnight because he departed the household when I was 2.
The story, as told to me, was that I was sitting out in my sandbox eating a bonbon. The aroma was too much for Midnight, so he came closer to investigate.
Precious little me put the bonbon between my teeth, then stuck my face into Midnight’s. In his attempt to snatch the delicacy from me, he missed and bit me on the lip, causing blood flow and mass hysteria. This is the point in which you say, “So that’s why you look the way you do.”
It’s OK, I’ve heard it before.
The wound was not serious, but my dad, thinking since Midnight had tasted his toddler’s plasma, the carnivore might return for more at any time. He decided that one of us had to leave.
Fortunately, he let me stay. Midnight was given away to someone my dad knew.
Bruce stayed. After I learned to talk, I always called him Brucie. He was my backyard companion until I was nearly 7. Then he got sick and died. I was told he went to “dog heaven.” That consoled me very little.
Brucie’s passing was the first time I had to deal with death taking away someone close to me. I didn’t handle the situation at all well.
Elvis had released a song a few months before Brucie died called “Old Shep,” about a guy and his dog. When Mr. Presley sang the lyrics, “Old Sheppie has gone where the good doggies go,” I would go bonkers.
I did a lot of bawling for longer than my mom thought was normal. She was running out of ideas to get me to perk up.
One evening at the supper table, she mentioned to my father that a movie about a dog was playing uptown at the State Theatre. Maybe taking me to see it would be the tonic I needed. I should point out, that at this time in our lives, my father worked six nights a week managing one of our drive-in theaters, so the last place he wanted to go on his night off was to a movie.
But his boy’s mental health was on the line, so he relented.
So they took me to see “Old Yeller.” Apparently my mom failed to read Fred Gipson’s novel about a struggling frontier family and their yellow hound dog. Cutting to the chase, I didn’t see the final 10 minutes of this movie until 1966 when the movie came around the horn a second time.
When young actor Tommy Kirk solved Yeller’s rabies situation by … well, you know, my dad had to carry me out of the building. I’m sure no one else in the auditorium could hear the movie at all until we cleared the front door of the theater.
Several years later, when talking with my dad about this night of terror, his reply was, “Your mother meant well, just didn’t work out.”
Still looking for an answer to my problems, they decided that maybe a new dog could help replace the one we had lost. So one Sunday after church, we drove somewhere out to an Iredell county farm, and looked at a puppy. Naturally, I wanted it. I can still see my dad handing the man a ten-dollar bill and, in return, getting a small black-and-white puppy which fit in his outstretched hand.
My mom said the puppy (part chihuahua, part some sort of terrier) was an “itsy-bitsy little thing.” So before we got her home, we had named her “Bitsy.” Within a few days, my father custom-made her a nice bed, which he painted black. Unlike Brucie, Bitsy would be a house dog.
As it turned out, Bitsy took to my father as much as she took to me, so we shared her. Bitsy loved to ride in the car, so we included her on family trips to visit relatives, taking her as far as Washington, D.C. and Illinois. She was a great companion.
I would have her until early 1967, when she suffered a stroke and died in my arms. She was 9. I buried her in our backyard. It was such a difficult thing to do, I promised myself that I would never bury another pet.
I have kept that promise to this day.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents all the movies played in Rowan County theaters between 1920 and 1979.