OUR DOG HAS MORE FRIENDS THAN WE DO
"Go get it, Buff. Come on boy, you've got it! OK, now bring it back!" Ann and I were watching our 8 week old Golden Retriever puppy, "Great White Buffalo", pad into the water on giant paws, snatch a stick from the foam, and waddle hyperkinetically back up the sloping sand to our feet. He smiled crazily, having retrieved from water at his master's command for the first time in his life.
"Geez, these guys must be bred for this - they do it naturally."
"You've never done this before?"
"Well, just in the living room, you know, throwing that sock. But we've never trained him or anything, never given him a reward for fetching." I marveled at the Darwinian strength of his instincts.
"Look at him," Ann pointed. "He's trying to swim!" This little guy had bug eyes as he tasted salt water. Madly dog paddling, he stayed one stroke ahead of a breaker with a stick the size of his leg clamped in his mouth.
Buff lived in our front yard, with his step mother Tasha. Tasha was a Collie/Shepherd mix, saved from the pound a year or two before we bought Buff purebred from a breeder in Diamond Bar. She was smart and cautious where Buff was quick and reactive. They spent their days rooting amidst the weeds in the 10' by 20' patch of turf in front of our house, lazing on the porch when the sun got too hot. They lived for the morning and evening walks down to the beach.
Our own little patch of sand stretched between two piles of rocks, one anchoring a storm drain outlet, the other a T-shaped jetty protecting the beach from northbound waves. Evenings, I'd open the gate to our little yard, and let the dogs trot down the sidewalk, tugging at leashes, to the open sand past the boardwalk. There, I'd free them from restraint, and Buff would whip away towards the water like some alcohol-fueled funny car whose drag chute had failed to open. His tongue lurching out to one side, he'd rocket straight over the sand, front and rear paws working like horizontal pistons - first spread out front and far behind, then rammed all four together underneath. Tasha, the lady, had a more stately entrance to the water. While Buff bounded first on his front feet, and then his rear, she would work each side in tandem. I almost expected her to prance along with her tail in the air like some Disney poodle or Aristocat.
Buff never did figure out that he couldn't chase a stick until I got there. To kill time and cool his jets while waiting for me to catch up, he'd hit the water and do a quick 180, catching his tail in the languid pools left over from the waves. He'd throw his snout down into the wet sand, and jump up like a bare back bronc trying to buck a rodeo cowboy. Finally, Tasha and I would amble up. I'd heft the stick I brought along.
Living in Venice, and spending the rest of my time in a hospital or on the freeway, I didn't have easy access to trees, alive or dead. So I had grabbed one day from a construction site a two by two, about two feet long, and saved it by the door as Buff's fetching rod. I'd skim it over the water, trying to land it past the breakers' peaks. As soon as my arm went back for the fling, Buff would run until the water reached his chest. Then he'd jump up a bit, and paddle out to sea, hoping to spy the flying stick over his head while keeping spray from his eyes. (He was so eager to fetch, I could easily fool him four or five times in a row with a fake toss, if I wanted some cheap amusement.) No matter where I threw, he'd reach the stick within a second or two after it left my hand; turning as he grabbed, he'd be back by my side, simultaneously dropping the stick at my feet, and soaking my legs with his shake. Then he'd sit down, tongue lolling, and give me that Golden idiot grin while panting heavily, waiting for me to throw again.
He was tireless. My arm would give out long before he ever did. Ten, twenty, thirty times in a row - he never got tired, always wanted more. A regular canine boomerang.
Tasha was more genteel, of course. While Buff was swimming himself to exhaustion, she would tap along the edge of the foam, taking care never to let the water get above her ankles. She'd race in and out as the waves broke and fell, running a zig zag along the squishy waterlogged sand, barking encouragingly while Buff did all the work.
When I got tired, Ann and I would walk from one rock wall to another and back. We'd link arms behind each other's back, lock hips side-by-side, and synchronize our steps to sway together. If we timed it right, and the wind and smog cooperated, we could hit my favorite time of night, the magic light a half hour before sunset.
When the sun angles low over the northwest, and the air is scooped clean by a passing winter storm, the beach becomes electric. Each facet of the cups in the choppy water shows a different side to the light, yet a rhythmic regularity comes out of the bobbing wavelets. Not yet the dullness of sunset, and no longer the harshness of the bright afternoon, the light is both softened and sharpened. In the distance, the horizon shimmers at its jagged junction with the sky. The sun is changing from white to yellow. The reflections coming off the serrated surface of the sea hit the eye like a thousand crystal prisms shining in my face. And the sand, now starting to dampen up from the invading evening fog, catches each and every aspect of the light show, transforming into a purely psychedelic backdrop for the whole affair.
The sand, while shimmering back at us, also gives up its heat absorbed from throughout the day. Lazy waves, their washing sounds surrounding us like a silk headdress, a swaying walk with Ann, dogs lapping at our sides, light coming at us like a fireworks show seen through closed eyelids, cocooning warmth of sand contrasted with the cool wet mush beneath our bare feet - evenings like that with my little family on the beach at Venice seemed the center of the world, a place from which all life could emanate.
And a place you'd never want to leave. But the secret of Southern California nights, even in the summer, is the air gets cool as the sun goes down. Unlike the Midwest, a thousand miles from any cooling ocean, the beach at night can turn downright chilly. Forget your sweater, ignore your jacket, insist on shorts, and goose bumps crawl up your legs like an army of pinching spiders, pulling your skin tight before the shakes start up. So we'd tramp back home, pull up the latch on our front gate, pet the dogs one last time on the porch steps, and move inside for an evening of home life.
Sometimes we'd go down to the boardwalk without the dogs, and they'd moan a bit, jumping up to get their front paws on the five foot high edge of the solid wood fence surrounding our yard. We'd give them a pet or two, and turn away. Coming back, we might see from the end of the walk a stranger, talking softly and petting Buff, or saying "hi" to Tasha (she was more reserved, and wouldn't come to the fence for just anyone). This gave us the idea to announce Buff's birthday to his friends. We put up a little sign, saying "Wish Buff Happy Birthday (He's 1 today!)."
"This dog is so cool! He's just the friendliest pup. I always bring him something when I come by. He seems to love biscuits." A lanky long-hair smiled up at me when I came out on the porch to gather the morning sunshine before going to work. He leaned over the fence and scratched Buff, who was standing on his hind legs, leaning against the top rail of the fence. He clearly knew this guy. "Yep, this feeler's my friend. He and I talk every day. Maybe I should get him a present or something. What's he like?"
"Well, he probably likes being petted as much as anything." All day, Ann said, people stopped by and said "Hi" to Buff. Street people, suited people, sandeled people, hippies, surfers, guys, gals, old folks, kids, cops and robbers. Hardly anybody we knew, though. Buff had a secret life he carried on while we were away at work. We only got him for those morning and evening walks down to the beach, but his fans got him all the rest of the time. He had so much love, though, we never knew the difference. He was very easy to share.
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