Chapter 15

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Highway Haiku # 15

Stop, greedy vultures

You are hereby limited

To one carrion

 

Texas seems to have more than its share of pick-up trucks, pride, vultures, religion, guns, good ol’ boys and strip clubs — even when you take its vast size into account, which, it being Texas, it insists you do.

In the Lone Star state, I’d revisit the town where I once lived (Houston) and the town where I could have died (Groom); we’d meet a former Michael Vick dog named Mel; and Ace would add to his list of unusual experiences by visiting what’s billed as the largest cross in America, another roadside attraction consisting of partially entombed Cadillacs, and a gentlemen’s club in Dallas, where he’d get some time on stage.

Before any of that, though, I needed to see a cat in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma wasn’t on the itinerary. But given my tendency during our journey to revisit my past, if it’s within reasonable driving distance, given both an ex-wife and ex-girlfriend would be among those we dropped in on, a detour to visit my ex-cat seemed in order.

Miley, a former Baltimore alley cat, now resides in Waynoka, Oklahoma.

I first spotted her about six months before we began our trip, around the corner from my rowhouse in South Baltimore. I lived in a neighborhood that had not yet achieved full  gentrification, meaning it still had a little bit of a colorful, gritty and affordable side. Miley showed up one day outside The Lighthouse, an old-school bar and restaurant located at an intersection that a couple of other stray cats, and a drug dealer or two, had already laid claim to.

As a newcomer, Miley – as I’d name her later — wasn’t faring too well. Unaccepted by her fellow street felines, she’d snuck into two corner bars and been tossed out of both. Word was some of the young street toughs had been kicking her around. She’d taken refuge under a vacant home’s front steps, in a stairwell filled with old boards with nails in them. A couple of times, I’d brought her some cat food.

Ace and I were coming home from the park when I saw a neighbor, who’d been feeding her also, trying to find her. It was January of 2010, and a blizzard was on the way. My neighbor was worried that Miley would perish. She wanted to take Miley home even though, between her other cat and her Rottweiler, Caesar, it could prove problematic.

Sensing a hero opportunity, or maybe just to impress a pretty girl, I caught Miley and we took her to my house, even though I didn’t really want a cat. By then, I was already toying with idea of the trip, and I didn’t want to have to drop the cat at a shelter when that time came.

To avoid that, I decided to put Miley – who I was calling Miles at the time, under the belief she was a he — on my website. Using photos taken before and after her rescue, I put together a video, to the tune of “Miles from Nowhere,” by Cat Stevens. I posted it in hopes some animal lover would see it and offer a forever home.

For three months, no one stepped forward. Then I heard from a woman named Kitty who said she’d love to have Miley. Kitty lived in Oklahoma, but she didn’t see that as a problem. She was a truck driver and, sooner or later, she’d be passing through Baltimore, or at least nearby. About a month later, I handed Miley over to Kitty in a Wal Mart parking lot in Frederick, Maryland. After a long goodbye, Ace and I watched as Kitty loaded her into the cab of her truck, also occupied by a cat named Chuzzle and two dogs, both pit bulls, named Havoc and Bonkers.

I was convinced she was a true animal lover. But a tiny piece of me remained skeptical, and some of those who read the account on my blog of Miley being turned over raised questions, worried that Kitty might have been one of those nefarious sorts who take in free animals and then sell them on Craigslist, or to dogfighters, or for use in medical experiments.

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Kitty stayed in touch as she and the animals covered thousands more miles, and emailed me once she got home. I hadn’t heard from her since. While still in New Mexico, I called her cell phone to see if we could visit. She was on the road again, but she said I should drop by and see her husband John, who, due to a job-related disability, is home all the time. When she’d offered to take Miley, she’d said she wanted the cat to help keep her husband company during the day.

Turns out John has lots of company — eight dogs and three cats (not counting those Kitty was traveling with at the time in the truck), two turtles, an 18-month old son and three baby possums he was nursing after his older son accidentally struck the momma possum with his car.

“We’ve got a soft spot for critters,” Kitty explained on the phone.

Given the array of animal life inside, I left Ace in the car. Miley seemed to remember me immediately (or maybe that’s wishful thinking). She brushed up against me and let me pick her up, something she didn’t do that often when she lived with me. She seemed used to all the other creatures in the home — even the new possums, which John was feeding milk to through a syringe. John introduced me to the rest of the animals, and I spent a few more minutes petting Miley before saying goodbye.

If I had any nagging doubts about whether the former Baltimore street cat was enjoying her new life in Oklahoma, they were gone by then.

***

Everyone – canine, feline, and even human — deserves a second chance, and, I’d argue, maybe a third, four and fifth. It’s only right, given all the mistakes we manage to make on our own, all the wrongs inflicted on us by others, and all the other curve balls life manages to throw at us.

In Texas, John Steinbeck ran into some bad luck. He had car trouble and dog trouble — simultaneously — and it forced him to spend three days at a motor court in Amarillo, a fate to which I could relate.

A piece of gravel thrown up on the road broke Rocinante’s windshield, and Steinbeck stopped to get it replaced. Charley, meanwhile, was experiencing another bout of being unable to pee. Steinbeck called a local veterinarian who, he wrote, made a house call to the motel he was staying in. The vet diagnosed prostatitis and suggested Charley remain in his care for the next few days.

Once he got Charley back, completely recovered it seemed, Steinbeck drove on to the ranch of some friends, where he’d rendezvous again with his wife for Thanksgiving and engage in such popular Texas pastimes as drinking, hunting, fishing and tall tale telling before the long, long, gosh darn long, drive east.

“Once you are in Texas,” he wrote, “it seems to take forever to get out, and some people never make it.”

I was almost one of them, back in 1993, sliding off ice-covered Interstate 40 and rolling my car, myself, and Hobo, my dog at the time, down an embankment in Groom, about 30 miles east of Amarillo.

Returning to Philadelphia after a three-year assignment in California, my Isuzu Trooper slid off the road and made two full flips before coming to rest, right side up. I managed to restart the crumpled vehicle and drive a mile to the nearest motel.

As I stood in the lobby, holding for my insurance company on the pay phone, the desk clerk kept pointing me out to new arrivals who’d seen my flattened car parked outside. Each time he told the story, he added one more roll: “That’s him over there. Rolled over four times. He’s lucky to be alive.”

Hobo and I – he was a mutt adopted from a shelter in Huntington Beach — went to our room and licked our wounds. From his skin and mine, I dislodged the pieces of shrapnel left embedded in us from the plastic cassette tape holders that had shattered and flown about. I waited – one day, then another — for the ride the motel owners had kindly offered to the Amarillo airport, where I could rent a car for the rest of the trip. The Isuzu was totaled, and a police officer, having seen it in the parking lot, decided I deserved a ticket for reckless driving. The ice, apparently, was presumed innocent. He said I was free to contest the charge, but I’d have to come back to Groom in four months to do so. At that point, I decided I was guilty.

For three days, I kept waiting for a ride out of Groom, a town of about 500. It’s where the 1992 movie “Leap of Faith” — about an evangelistic healer who bilks believers out of their money – was filmed. Finally, on day four, with my room bill rising and my faith waning, I left Hobo in the room, walked to a truck stop and hitched a ride on a chicken truck to the Amarillo airport to get a rental car. Then I went back to the motel, picked Hobo up and drove on, vowing to avoid Groom, and perhaps the entire accursed panhandle, for eternity.

Knowing I was now about to break that vow, as Ace and I headed back east, and feeling a little shaky about it, I stopped frequently on my way across the panhandle. First we visited Cadillac Ranch, created in 1973 by an artist who buried ten used Cadillacs in the ground, head first, with their rear ends jutting into the air.

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Since then it has been relocated, and the cars have been tagged with multiple layers of graffiti – which has been deemed OK to do and is considered part of the artwork’s evolution. Ace, as a member of the species that invented tagging things that protrude from the ground, had a field day, spraying each car at least once.

We stopped again on the east side of Amarillo to fill my thermos with coffee at the Jesus Christ is Lord Travel Center. It was opened two years earlier by Sam Kohli, who also runs the Jesus Christ is Lord trucking line, whose 100-plus trucks are all emblazoned with that phrase.

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“He just felt there were a lot of people who didn’t know Jesus Christ is Lord,” the woman at the cash register explained to me, charging me a mere $1.18 to fill my thermos and wishing me safe travels.

Nearing Groom, I realized that my return was exactly 18 years to the day after the accident. This time around, though, the roads weren’t icy and there was no snow, only some heavy winds that kept sending me out of my lane.

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The first Groom exit, when one is headed west to east, is the site of what bills itself as the largest cross in America. It’s made of steel, and is 19 stories tall. It took 250 welders eight months to complete, and weighs 1,250 tons. The man behind it is Steve Thomas, who was disgusted with billboards advertising “pornographic” services and decided to send travelers a different message.

It wasn’t there on my earlier trip — not being finished until two years later — so it took me by surprise, and visiting it served to further forestall going past the scene of my accident, which was one exit ahead.

After giving Ace a lengthy pee break at the cross (but not on it), I took two more precautions. First I turned off the radio to ensure that the Red Hot Chili Peppers wouldn’t come on. They were playing when I rolled. Then I decided to approach the site not from the Interstate, but to sneak up on it by taking back roads. First, I looked for the motel that had held me hostage, but found it no longer exists, having become a storage facility.

I parked under the interstate highway overpass that sent me sliding, leaving Ace in the car, for safety reasons, but taking bobblehead Jesus with me. I assumed it couldn’t hurt. The embankment looked much smaller than I remembered it. I stood there and waited for some closure, but it never came, at least not that I noticed. Maybe I already had closure, and all I was doing was reopening it. Maybe there’s no such thing. I’m not entirely sure I believe in closure.

Back on I-40, I turned the radio back on, but it seemed to be offering only religious music or Rush Limbaugh, neither of which I was in the mood for.

The further one gets from an urban area, the bigger the gap between towns, the tinier and more rural the community, the more likely one is to pick up religion — sometimes only religion — on the radio.

You can find sermons, and God-talk shows, gospel music, and even God-comedy. Increasingly, you find God-rock, which is not transparent at all. Frequently, in Oklahoma and Texas, I found myself finding a station, getting into the rhythm of some catchy tune and tapping my fingers on the steering wheel only to realize that I was unknowingly rocking to the Lord – which you generally don’t learn until the chorus comes up and mentions words like “salvation” or “The Savior.”

When that happened, it always left me feeling duped, and wondering what sort of subliminal intrusions may have occurred. It’s not that I totally disbelieve in God, it’s just that religion — despite its many benefits — is too fear-based, and leads to too much fighting. I don’t like it when people try to foist it on me in an upfront manner. I like it even less when they try to slather it on me in a sneaky way, like in that old commercial where the woman getting a manicure is informed her hand is immersed in Palmolive dish detergent: “You’re soaking in it.”

Rural Oklahoma had been particularly heavy on God music – both the blatant and surreptitious variety — leading me to finally turn to the CDs I brought along on the trip. On the Woody Guthrie Memorial Highway, I slid in a Woody Guthrie CD and listened to songs about dust and migrants and labor unrest, the search for a better life and, yes (I make an exception for Woody) even God.

Escaping the panhandle of Texas, headed for the pan, I fired the CD up again. The first song that came on was called “Heaven”:

I wrote down this song for my own self

And sing it now to my own soul

But if you’ll sing songs of your dreamings

Then you will reap treasures untold

***

How we got from the “largest cross in America” to a stripper’s pole in Dallas is a long story, but the main factors – aside from driving there, of course — were these: the decline of American journalism, Newt Gingrich and dogs.

Dallas, where God may still have some work to do, doesn’t have more strip clubs per capita than any other U.S. city; it only seems that way. In some parts of town they are pretty hard to avoid. Most are big and glitzy, and like to call themselves “Gentlemen’s Clubs.” They advertise heavily on billboards, featuring scantily clad women with come hither looks.

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But what drew us to The Lodge, an upscale club modeled after a Rocky Mountain hunting lodge, was a connection made the previous year when, while researching an article for ohmidog!, I’d contacted the club’s “Writer-in-Residence,” as his business card puts it.

Michael Precker had devoted the bulk of his life to newspapers, serving as a Middle East correspondent for nearly seven years, and covering a wide variety of stories across America. Like me, he grew disillusioned with where newspapers were heading, and jumped ship. Only he landed in a strip club.

After taking a buyout offer from the Dallas Morning News, he met the owner of The Lodge at a charity event and was hired to handle the club’s public relations. I had called him the previous year to get some details about, and a photo of, a sanctuary for pit bulls that was being established with funds provided by the club’s owner, Dawn Rizos.

Rizos had donated $5,000 to the cause — but the most interesting part of the story was where that money had come from. It was a refund of what she paid in advance to attend a private dinner in Washington, where she was to receive an “Entrepreneur of the Year” award from Newt Gingrich’s conservative organization, American Solutions for Winning the Future.

Perhaps American Solutions was in a hurry when it mistakenly bestowed the award on Rizos — “in recognition of the risks you take to create jobs and stimulate the economy.” The Lodge does business under the name DCG, Inc. The organization had meant to give the honor to another company that used those same initials. Rizos probably suspected as much, but played along and bought her ticket to the event. Realizing their flub, American Solutions rescinded the award, just a week before the ceremony. But they did at least offer Rizos a refund.

Rizos donated the money she was refunded to an animal rescue organization seeking to build a shelter for unwanted pit bulls. It would be named, in honor of the former speaker of the House, “Newt’s Nook.”

After that, Precker stayed in touch, notifying me whenever The Lodge was putting together an event benefiting dogs, such as one of The Lodge’s car washes, which apparently are quite stimulating in their own right; they’ve raised more than $160,000 for local animal causes. Seeing on my website that Ace and I were on the road, Precker told me to drop by when we passed through Dallas. I met him for lunch, dropping Ace off in the offices upstairs, where staff members said they’d be happy to dog sit.

Rizos was out of town, but she usually brings her two dogs with her to work – a Chihuahua named Pedro and a mutt named Alley, who she adopted after the dog made news for holding up Dallas traffic for days on the LBJ Freeway. The club’s manager of VIP services, Sunny Hunter, and her husband Richard Hunter, a local radio personality, were among those who helped catch Alley.

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The Hunters, I learned during my visit, had also recently adopted another dog – one that formerly lived on the Virginia estate of quarterback Michael Vick.

Mel was only about a year old when he was among the 47 dogs seized from Vick’s dogfighting operation. He was one of 22 – those deemed the least likely to be rehabilitated – sent to Best Friends, the animal sanctuary in southern Utah.

Sunny agreed to have her husband bring Mel by the next day so Ace and I could meet him. Arriving early, before the club opened, Ace and I got to wander around, and at one point he jumped up on stage. When he was joined by a dog-loving dancer, I had no choice but to take pictures. Looking at them later, I noticed that in every one of them, he had a look on his face that could only be described, in human terms, as bashful.

***

Because Mel seems most comfortable when he’s in a car, we’d decided that’s how we would meet. When Richard pulled up, we greeted Mel and the Hunter’s other dog, a terrier mix named Pumpkin, through a window, then loaded Ace into the backseat with them. It was a tight fit, but no one seemed bothered by it. Pumpkin sat in the middle, shielding Mel the whole time.

Since she first met Mel, somehow sensing he needed a protector, that is what she has done, the Hunters say. She allowed Ace to sniff Mel, and me to pet him, but she never left his side and seemed to take the job very seriously.

Mel is meek and fearful, sad-eyed, and mostly black. He is believed to have been used as a bait dog, due to his small size and mild temperament. He was likely muzzled when he was thrown into the ring with other dogs being trained to fight. By serving in that capacity, he probably avoided being one of the dogs that Bad Newz Kennels terminated when they failed to fight viciously enough, sometimes by drowning, electrical shocks or hanging.

Mel, after the dog fighting ring was broken up, spent nearly two years at Best Friends, where trainers worked to help him overcome his fearfulness and eventually pronounced him adoptable.

Richard and Sunny, having seen a documentary about the former Vick dogs, already had an application in by then. The couple waited for nine months, went through a criminal background check, and then a home visit. Finally, they were invited up to Best Friends to spend a week living on the grounds, getting to know Mel. They brought Pumpkin along. When the adoption was finally approved — by the same judge who sent Vick to prison for two years — Mel was delivered to the Hunter’s home in Dallas by a Best Friends trainer and caregiver, who stayed in town for a week, visiting daily.

Since then, the Hunters say, Mel has slowly come out of his shell. He still quivers at first when strangers show up, or when he’s in new surroundings, but he’s getting more used to meeting people. It used to take three visits before he was comfortable with a stranger, now it takes only 20 minutes or so. Mel used to play only when nobody was watching, and he used to shake when the Hunters came home. The shaking has stopped; he seems a little less fearful, and holds his head a little higher. Mel’s tail, which was broken in his youth, stayed between his legs for the first few months. Now it makes the occasional appearance, but it still doesn’t wag.

Pumpkin, who is 13, has been a huge factor in his transition.

“At home, when a new person shows up, Mel sits in the corner with his back to the wall, like a statue. Pumpkin gets in front of him and screens him,” said Richard. “Pumpkin has been instrumental in getting him to relax.” Mel has never barked, or made any sound, in the time they have had him. At night, if Mel goes to the door and seems to need a trip outside, Pumpkin takes note and barks for him.

Richard Hunter, like many people, can’t forgive Michael Vick, who, after serving his prison sentence, joined the Philadelphia Eagles and went on to make the most of his second chance. After our stop there, Hunter confronted Vick during a visit to Dallas, asking him if he wanted to meet his former dog, before the quarterback’s entourage pushed him aside.

While Vick’s dogs were, in most cases, rehabilitated, Hunter is among those who doubt the same was achieved by Vick, even with his appearances in a Humane Society of the United States anti-dogfighting campaign. Having Mel in his home, seeing the toll his previous life took on him, has only hardened Hunter’s feeling about the quarterback.

“Most people really didn’t take the time to look at the details of the case – the jumper cables, the hanging, the drowning, the distance throwing contests. That’s just bizarre. It’s diabolical,” Richard said.

As we drove around town, Hunter kept his eyes open for another stray dog that had been eluding officials in recent weeks. The dog had been hanging around a Dallas church, frightening parishioners, and the pastor had threatened to have it shot.

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During the ride, Mel sat quietly by the window. Pumpkin kept vigil. Ace tried to get comfortable in the small back seat without intruding too much on their space. Later, back at the club, we all got out of the car, and a cowering Mel let Ace approach and sniff as Pumpkin peered on. Ace, somehow, seemed to detect that Mel was emotionally fragile, and acted accordingly. Pumpkin, somehow, seemed to sense that Ace meant no harm. Mel, though clearly nervous, somehow was open to meeting both a new dog and a new person.

“His resilience is amazing to me,” Hunter said. “He really has changed my life. It’s amazing to me that he’s willing to love us — that he’s still able to judge people individually when for the first year of his life, if he saw a human being, it meant something terrible was going to happen to him”

***

If I were to generalize and stereotype, which one shouldn’t do – neither with big dogs nor big states — I would say that, based on my experiences, Texas is too hot, too big, too loud and too blatant. Having spent my impressionable adolescence there, I’ve always tended to view it as the kind of place where one must choose between inflating oneself to larger than life proportions or getting squashed, where it’s almost a matter of choosing between being a roadkiller or becoming roadkill.

It is where my first dog died, of suspected poisoning. It is where my parents divorced. It is where in junior high school I – chubby, quiet and uncool — first encountered bullies in groups, though, admittedly, such towel-snapping lugs can be found in every state. It’s where I became a loner, with only a few friends, the best of which were usually canine or imaginary. Texas is where I had my first car accident, before I even had a driver’s license and, I hope, my last one, back in Groom.

Texas, all things considered, has messed with me much more than I ever messed with it.

To this day, when I pass through – as I have several times in connection with newspaper stories – I do so with a sense of unease, feeling out of place amid all the big hats and gun racks and roaring pickup trucks and grammatically incorrect signs that warn me “Dangerous Cross Winds Ahead.” (“Why so cross?” I want to ask them, and sometimes do.) I still want to see and experience all the enthralling parts of Texas, but I also want it – by which I mean Texas — to be over.

At least that’s how I felt until I pulled into Bandera, population 957.

Before the trip, the editor of the Bandera County Courier had contacted me about reprinting some ohmidog! articles in her newspaper. Judith Pannebaker was a former Baltimore resident, though I didn’t know her. She and her husband Bill, a dentist, had moved to the Hill Country around Austin 14 years earlier. When I told her about my upcoming trip, she invited Ace and me to stay at their home, with their four dogs, four cats, and acres of running room.

Ace got along great with three of the dogs — Doc Holliday, Johnny Ringo and Kate, who looks like a miniature version of Ace and who, when she chases a squirrel up a tree, literally goes up the tree herself. Their fourth dog, a big black pit bull named Jake, was kept separate because the Pannebakers weren’t sure how he’d react to Ace.

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When Ace wasn’t enjoying the hospitality of their home, where treats are dispensed often, he hung out at the newspaper office, where he apparently impressed the staff enough to be deemed, and featured in the newspaper as, Bandera’s “tourist of the week.”

A charming little town that left me wanting to linger, Bandera takes great pride in its cowboy heritage, and some spots, like the legendary Silver Dollar Saloon haven’t changed much since the days of the old west, if you don’t count the addition of neon, pinball and Merlot. Once can still smoke inside the bar, and quaff an ice cold $1.50 Lone Star, while listening to conversations that sound like country songs: “It may not be right,” I heard one customer say, “but it’s right for me.”

Bandera is dappled with dude ranches, and the county has about an equal number of people and deer. The city park runs along the Medina River, with huge cypress trees providing abundant shade. Young people plunge into the river from rope swings, and dogs romp without leashes. Humans and canines seemed to still have some liberties there, and the humidity wasn’t too oppressive, either.

The Pannebakers supplied me with food, bed, local lore, story ideas, and – when I went to visit, at their suggestion, Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch – dog-sitting services.

Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch was founded by a dog-lover who is also a mystery novelist, musician, social commentator, humorist, columnist, one-time gubernatorial candidate, good ol’ boy, singer, songwriter, purveyor of both cigars and salsa, and, perhaps most famously of all, a Jew.

Kinky Friedman was an infant when his family moved from Chicago to Texas to start a summer camp for Jewish children. As a grown-up, he’s authored more than 25 books including, “Roadkill,” “God Bless John Wayne,” and “The Great Psychedelic Armadillo Picnic.” His band, the Texas Jewboys, still tours, performing songs that include “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” and “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.”

Friedman, now in his sixties and often referred to as the “Mark Twain of Texas,” has a long history of rescuing pets, starting in New York City in 1979, when he found a kitten in a shoe box while walking through Chinatown. He took it home and named it Cuddles. In the summer of 1996, he found a cat in the middle of the road while driving from his parents’ ranch to Medina. The cat, named Lucky, had been shot. Friedman took the cat to a veterinarian, paid for the surgeries and amputation of an injured leg, then took Lucky home.

Because he traveled frequently, Friedman turned to friend Nancy Parker-Simons to babysit his pets when he was gone, and that arrangement evolved into Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch. In 1998, the rescue operation started on Parker-Simon’s seven acres in the town of Utopia. Three years later, it moved to the Friedman ranch.

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Parker-Simons and her husband, Tony Simons, tend to the dogs with help from volunteers. They do their best to find them permanent homes, but that doesn’t always happen quickly. Mr. Happy, for instance, had been at the shelter for all of the 12 years since it opened.

“He just always seems to get overlooked,” Parker-Simons said.

Among the newer residents, who she has taken to naming after celebrities, were Bob Dylan, Ben Stiller and Mister Rogers, who spent years as a stray on the streets of Kansas City. All now spend their days in large and shaded fenced lots, enjoying walks with volunteers, dips in the swimming hole in the summer, and homemade garlic and cheese quesadillas in the winter.

The no-kill shelter gives another chance to dogs that otherwise likely wouldn’t get one – dogs that were abused, neglected or, for various reasons, got kicked out of their families.

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“The way our world treats dogs, sometimes I feel so sorry for them. People just dispose of them,” Parker-Simons said. She gets particularly piqued when she gets calls from women who want to give up their dogs because their boyfriends don’t want them around. Hearing that one too many times, she said she’s started suggesting to those callers that any man who demanded something like that isn’t worth keeping.

“Why don’t you euthanize him?” she told one, “because the guy doesn’t have a clue about love.”

I met and chatted with Friedman in the modest cabin he lives in on the camp’s grounds. Not counting the 50 at Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch, Friedman has always had several dogs living with him, though, when we visited, he was down from six dogs a few years ago to only two, Chumley and Brownie, who he regularly grills steaks for and otherwise spoils.

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His dogs of the past aren’t far away. Stepping out his front door, he showed me where a couple of decades worth of pets are buried — all in a colorful, well-tended garden — including his beloved Mr. Magoo, who died at 14 and whose gravesite is topped with all of “Goo’s” favorite stuffed toys.

He gave the plot a good watering before sending me off with several of his books, all autographed, including his latest, “Kinky’s Celebrity Pet Files.”

In it, Friedman recounts the connections many of his celebrity friends have had with their pets: How Beach Boy Brian Wilson, on the “Pet Sounds” album, closed one song with the barking of his two dogs, Banana and Louis; how Dr. John’s dog, Lucy, once ate menthol-flavored condoms; about Fats Domino’s bichon Frise, Winnie the Pooh, who perished in Hurricane Katrina; Billie Holliday’s boxer, Mister, who would sit backstage while his master sang; and Jim Nabors, who on the eve of every Fourth of July would fly his four Staffordshire Terriers from Honolulu to Maui, where they wouldn’t be bothered by fireworks.

He talks about his own pets as well in the book, recounting their hijinks, daily routines and bedtime rituals:

Then we all go back to bed and dream of fields full of slow-moving rabbits and mice and cowboys and Indians and imaginary childhood friends and tail fins on Cadillacs and girls in the summertime and everything else that time has taken away.

 

ROADSIDE ENCOUNTER:

CPHoustonselfbig

Name: Clyde Peterson

Age:  In his 60’s

Breed: (It’s a vanishing one) Editorial cartoonist

Encountered: At a restaurant in Houston

Backstory: I spent my puberty in Houston, living there from 1965 to 1970. (It was a long puberty.) After my parents divorced, I’d spend summers with my father – in three different states – but I mostly grew up with my mom. I don’t know if she made a conscious effort to provide me with a male role model, but a co-worker at the Houston Chronicle, the newspaper’s editorial cartoonist, ended up being just that.

He cartooned under the name C.P. Houston, but his real name is Clyde Peterson. I remember sitting in his office and watching him conjure up editorial cartoons, our frequent tennis outings, going to Astros games, in the actual Astrodome (then a technological marvel, now an empty has been) and – what may have been our favorite shared activity — attending professional wrestling matches, with their absolutely good guys and totally bad guys and never anybody in between.

He, at a time in his life when he probably had far better things to do than hang around with a snot-nosed pubescent, probably played a big role in shaping what I became — hopefully something more than a snot-nosed adult.

Clyde, retired now, remains honorable, witty and unafraid, a hardcore storyteller, a full-time pursuer of curiosity. At breakfast, as I told him about my mostly destination-less journey, he recalled how his family would regularly jump in the car and take weekend trips to nowhere in particular.

They’d know where they were going when they got there.

I think, probably even more than our genes, who we become is shaped by those who come in and out of our lives – the mentors, the teachers, the role models (best found, usually, outside the realm of professional sports), the second-chance givers, the true listeners, even the canines, clowns and cartoonists who give us something to think and smile about.

Clyde and I met for lunch, during which I tried to tell him in that guy way – where you say something without coming right out and saying it – how lucky I was that he came into mine.

 

 

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