Ryan – A Dream of a Dog

In my last post, I wrote about the tragic Big Thompson Canyon flood of 1976. I received an outpouring of response, with most focusing on the heartache of Amy’s and my parents when they thought we might have been lost in that horrible deluge in Colorado. Some readers also asked about other aspects of that cross-country trip, like what was our favorite place to visit and any other memorable events. So, here’s another story from that trip. After recounting the tragedy of the Thompson Canyon flood, it’s time for something a little lighter. It’s about our first dog, Ryan, a Golden Retriever whom we got in California during that trip. 

About a week into that 1976 cross-country trip, somewhere between Iowa and Nebraska, Amy and I decided that we should get a dog. How this notion came to us remains a mystery, but over the course of 24 hours, what began as a mere casual aside – hey, wouldn’t it be fun to have a dog – morphed into a need residing on the same level of food and sleep on Maslow’s Hierarchy. We needed a dog, and we needed a dog at that exact moment.

Growing up, neither Amy nor I had a dog, well at least for the most part. Amy’s family always had cats, and until I met her, I had never even been around a cat. When I came to pick her up for our first date, I was greeted by Hammerschmidt, an oversized black cat with white paws. He ambled over to me as soon as I entered the house. I didn’t know if he was welcoming me, sizing me up for attack, or preparing to interview me. After taking a few sniffs to judge my worthiness to exist on the same planet, he raised himself up on his hind legs, placed his front paws on my knees, and looked me straight in the eyes. Was I supposed to do something? Reveal my intentions toward Amy? Was there a cat greeting known only by cat people? I had a sense that Hammerschmidt could actually speak and didn’t let on. A feline Mr. Ed.

Watching me freeze with apprehension, Amy said, “He wants you to pet him.” Although she mustered a reassuring tone, I sensed she might be wondering what possessed her to go out with someone so lame. 

I had never touched a cat before, let alone pet one. I had come to believe their bad press, that they were aloof creatures, not interested in interacting with lowly humans. (Side note: five family cat members later… I can report that they can be aloof, but they do interact with us all the time, probably out of pity for our lowliness in the household pecking order.)

My previous dog experience was limited to two weeks of “fostering” a Cocker Spaniel puppy when I was ten. I had always wanted a dog. When I was younger and just learning how to read, my parents could occupy me for hours with books about dogs. But a real dog? Out of the question! My mother was afraid of dogs. And my father, who seemed to like dogs, came from a culture in which pets of any kind were unheard of. Animals belonged outside in their own realms.

The Cocker Spaniel came as a gift from my brother and sister. Surely, they hatched this scheme without consulting my parents who certainly would have quashed it immediately. When I first laid eyes on Rusty, I was beside myself with joy. Unfortunately, at the two-week mark, the poor puppy had some brown, smelly gunk in his ears. We panicked, so back to the kennel he went. We later learned that it was most likely a case of ear mites, a parasite passed along in kennels. At the time, we didn’t know that this relatively benign condition is common in puppies and is easily eradicated with a couple of days of medicine. Nevertheless, my desire for a dog remained.

Fast forward twelve years to our cross-country trip. There we were in the middle of an endless sea of cornfields when Amy and I were hit with the powerful yearning to get a dog. We would be moving to Philadelphia at the end of the summer where I would be starting graduate school. So, what could make more sense than to complicate our new life in a new city by bringing a dog into the picture?  We had no place to live yet, Amy would be looking for a new job, and I had no defined schedule. Didn’t matter. We had to have a dog.

And then there was the small matter of what kind of dog to get. Although we were not completely sure what they looked like, we immediately agreed on a Golden Retriever. It just sounded right. Soon after arriving at that decision, we were gazing in awe at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park when we met a couple who had a beautiful dog prancing proudly beside them.  We asked what kind of a dog he was, and when they said he was a Golden Retriever, we knew we had been on the right track. We were instantly and completely smitten.

We quickly put our plan together. As soon as we arrive in Los Angeles, we decided, we’ll check the classified section of the LA Times. For the next few hundred miles we could talk of little else. We had become obsessed.

Once we were in striking distance of Los Angeles, we were on a mission to get the newspaper. Interestingly, the classified section had one pet listing and it did not strike us as at all odd that it was for a litter of Golden Retrievers. After all, at this point we were swept up in a deep belief in fate. We called the number and were told there was only one pup left, so we made an appointment for the following morning. The wait was almost too much to bear.

When we arrived at the house, we were greeted by a young couple. We still remember that their names were Tim and Christie McCorkle. They had a young baby who was in a wind-up swing, contentedly rocking back and forth to the rhythmic clicks of the swing mechanism.

All at once, in bounded the cutest creature we ever saw, an eight-week-old Golden puppy, wagging so heartily we thought he might take off. He greeted us with licks, then playfully bounced over to the baby and began darting below the swing, the baby’s feet hitting him as the swing passed overhead. He took it all in stride, loving the attention from the baby who was giggling the whole time, so amused by the puppy’s antics.

Was there any doubt this puppy would be ours?

We were so green in what to do with a dog, we didn’t even know what questions to ask. Sensing our ignorance, which, by the way, didn’t require much effort, Tim and Christie gave some suggestions for food and advised us to make sure he always has access to fresh water. Oh, and give him lots of attention and love. We did not need that last instruction.

The fee for the puppy was $150, which was like a million dollars to us back then. But a little matter like not being able to afford him was not going to get in the way.

And what to call him? To this day we can’t recall how the name came to us, but we quickly concurred – he would be named Ryan.

We gathered Ryan, along with the leash and collar Tim and Christie supplied, and we were on our way. He settled in between us on the front seat of the car, figuring out in a flash how to adjust the air conditioning vent with his paw so it would blow on his face. Smart little guy!

Our first stop was a supermarket to get Puppy Chow and feeding dishes. The dog bowls were a bit pricey, so we resolved that we could make do with aluminum pie tins for food and water.

Ryan, at 8 weeks, with new friend at UCLA

Next stop, the campus of UCLA, where we were sure we could find a field for Ryan to romp. When we got there, we didn’t put on his leash as he kept following us around. We came upon a young mom and her little girl having a picnic. Ryan ran over to her. She extended her hand his way and the two of them delighted in him licking her fingers. He seemed to have boundless energy but a short while later, completely pooped, Ryan plopped down and fell fast asleep.

We brought him into our tent on that first night, tucked away in a campground just outside of Los Angeles. He was tired from a full day of playing and getting used to us, his new family. He fell asleep instantly, nestled on the tent floor just above our pillows.

In the middle of the night, I was awakened by a strange sensation of dampness. I thought perhaps I was dreaming. I groped around in the dark, feeling some moisture on my hand. I reached a little farther, then came upon complete soaking wetness. For those first few groggy seconds, I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then, Ryan’s smiling face, an inch away from mine, and his wagging tail, clued me in. Yes, the tent floor, our pillows, and the sleeping bags were saturated with puppy pee.

Lots of scrubbing, cleaning, and searching for a laundromat occupied most of the next day. Ryan got the hang of things after that. He was so eager to learn and to be involved in everything we did, even sitting patiently for two hours on the side of a hill at an outdoor live presentation of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" in Kanab, Utah!

When we moved to Philadelphia a month later, we took long strolls through the city almost every evening. Ryan was our constant companion. He was rarely on a leash as he had become so effortlessly bonded with us.

We made frequent visits to Fairmount Park, a beautiful scenic park that runs along the Schuylkill River. There, Amy and I played Frisbee with Ryan chasing each toss, running back and forth between us. At one point, an errant throw went in his direction. To our utter amazement, he ran for it, leapt up and caught it. We had no idea a dog could do that! From then on, catching Frisbees was one of Ryan’s favorite activities, and it wasn’t uncommon for small crowds to gather to watch his athletic feats. 

Once our kids came along, Ryan humbly relinquished his center spot in the family, seeming to understand that their needs for time and attention would come first. He relished his new job as their protector and playmate. He used to sleep under their cribs, alerting us to any waking movements above.

Ryan was absolutely the most awesome dog. Loving, playful, fun – an adored and adoring presence in our lives well beyond what we could have imagined. Whoever coined the phrase that a dog is a person’s best friend must have known Ryan.

Looking back, we certainly could not have picked a more impractical time to get a dog. Our lives were so unsettled. But Ryan has always served as a good reminder that sometimes it’s the seemingly craziest of decisions that turn out to be the best.