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With A Pit Bull On My Knee

by Clay Coppedge
My first dog was named Cisco in honor of a popular television hero of the day, the Cisco Kid. The Cisco Kid and his trusty sidekick Pancho rode the frontier fighting evil and injustice. In his own way, Cisco did the same thing.

Cisco was a pit bulldog, a breed with a tarnished reputation due to a number of unfortunate, sometimes deadly incidents. Pit bulls are the breed-of-choice for people who are somehow entertained by the sight of two dogs ripping each other to shreds. They are also the favored breed for street gangs and criminals.

All I knew about pit bulls as a small boy was that if anybody, including my own father, messed with me, Cisco would make them cry and run away. Such are the allegiances of childhood.

My dad picked Cisco out of a pound in Birmingham, Alabama because of the black ring around one eye that reminded him of the dog on the RCA record label “listening to his master’s voice.” Daddy didn’t know Cisco was a pit bull until a veterinarian broke the news to him a couple of weeks later. By then, it was too late; Cisco and I had “’bonded.”

Not long after that I came to Texas from Alabama in a 1949 Kaiser with a pit bull on my knee. For additional entertainment I had a Roy Rogers guitar. The family was in high spirits when the trip began. Daddy had a new job and I was going to the land of cowboys and Indians and would finally be able to decide once and for all which group I preferred.

The theme song for the trip turned out to be the Elvis Presley hit “Hound Dog.” I sang the song and accompanied myself on guitar with furious but random and discordant strumming. Whenever I sang the line “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine” Cisco howled mournfully, woefully insulted. My parents made the mistake of laughing the first time it happened. By their estimation, I sang the song 112 more times before we got to Lubbock.

Out of sheer frustration, Cisco took to rolling over on his back and clawing at the overhead upholstery until it hung in long, jagged shreds from the car roof. The knocking and pinging caused by worn out auto parts provided a grim rhythm section for my repetitive musical performances.

At a gas station in Arkansas, Cisco tried to remove the arm of a gas station attendant who stuck his arm inside the car with a receipt for the gas we bought. (This was back in the days of full-service gas stations.) Dad had to get out of the car to complete the transaction at every gas station we stopped at the rest of the way. Not far from the Lubbock County line a state trooper pulled us over because, in his words, we came to a “rolling stop” instead of a complete one. Dad pointed out that a complete stop seemed unnecessary in a land where you could see about a hundred miles in any direction.

Looking back, I’m sure the out-of-state tags and the beat up condition of the Kaiser had more to do with the trooper pulling us over than what kind of stop we did or didn’t make. Cisco growled the whole time. Much later in life my dad said he knew what Cisco was going to do but he elected not to prevent it.

Sure enough, when the trooper reached inside the car to hand the warning ticket to my dad Cisco lunged at the patrolman’s arm, missing the fleshy target by no more than a tooth’s length.

The officer reeled backwards and actually touched his holster for a moment. “That’s bad dog you have there, mister!”

“’He’s had a rough trip,” dad said tersely. “Besides, he’s very protective of the boy.”
* * *
Yes, Cisco was very protective of the boy but since I was the boy I didn’t mind. To my parents, however, Cisco had become a liability in our new Lubbock neighborhood. We had to tie him up when I had friends over because Cisco didn’t understand the innocence of wrestling and tackle football.

My parents broke the news to me as gently as they could: Cisco had to go. I took the news calmly because I had decided to run away from home with Cisco and live off the land.

The matter became moot the next day when Cisco pulled me out of the street a split second before a speeding Buick could hit me. Not only did Cisco save my life but my mother saw the whole incident unfold. The next time I ventured toward the street Cisco grabbed me by the seat of the pants with his teeth and pulled me back to the safety of the yard. In the face of such heroics, my parents’ resolve to get rid of Cisco wavered.
* * *
Cisco never cared much for daddy, even though he was one who actually saved Cisco from the pound. Like a lot of pit bulls, Cisco was loyal to one person and one person only and I was that one person. He tolerated my mother because she was master of the supper dish, but he never cottoned to dad at all.

One of the few times I ever got a bona fide whipping from my dad came one day after I “borrowed” his .38 caliber revolver from his dresser. I played with it for a time, grew bored and left it in the back yard. On a Saturday afternoon, while dad was grilling burgers, a glint of sunlight reflecting off the gun revealed my dangerous stupidity.

My dad, who lost one of his boyhood playmates to an “unloaded” gun, dealt with the situation summarily. He took me to the backporch, removed his belt and used it to whip me. Even before dad delivered the first blow I had commenced to cry like someone who, well, is about to be whipped across his bare legs with a big leather belt.

Dad knew Cisco would take exception to my punishment but he had me on a screened-in back porch, lulling him into a false sense of security. Cisco simply ripped away a portion of the screen, squeezed through the opening and lunged, teeth bared, at my dad. Dad barely made it inside the house with life and limb intact.

Cisco bounced off the kitchen door and slid down it slowly like some silly cartoon dog. Dad peeped out the back window only to see me with my arms around Cisco’s neck and Cisco licking my cheek. “Good dog,” I kept saying to my best friend. “You’re a good doggie.”
* * *
As anyone who has read “’Old Yeller” or any number of other boy-and-his-dog stories know, these childhood idylls never have a happy ending. In our case, we had a dog that was, in any legal sense, vicious. The games of my childhood, when played with my buddies, drove him nuts. He was such a danger to the neighborhood that my parents took to chaining him in the backyard when he was outside after he showed he could jump our fence, no problem.

For all I know now, Cisco might have been bred to fight before we adopted him. Who knows? At any rate, Cisco was not the kind of dog you could keep around children and other living things. The trip to Lubbock had about done him in, and being chained in the backyard finally finished him off. Why else would he have done the bad thing he did?

The end came when Cisco bit me, hard, on the arm. The dog was a nervous wreck by this time and he overreacted when I tried to push his supper dish back from the edge of the porch to keep it from falling off.

Cisco struck quickly but withdrew just as quickly, as horrified by what he had done as any of us. All of a sudden my arm had these little holes in it. Cisco hung his head sadly and didn’t finish his dog food right away. I think he must have known this was the end of the line.

The truck that came to take Cisco away is, in my mind, bigger than any truck ever built. In my memory it’s about the size of a B-12 bomber. Cisco whimpered from behind the cage and then the truck rolled out of the neighborhood and out of sight. My parents asked me to be brave and not to cry but when that huge truck showed up and Cisco was placed inside I broke down anyway.
* * *
My mother used to say, “There’s a little bit of good in everybody.” A lot of mamas say that. What they don’t say is that there’s a little bit of bad in everybody too. From being Cisco’s kid I learned to make up my own mind about people and dogs. That lesson would serve me well when we moved to a new neighborhood with its own resident bully, a kid who had about the same reputation as pit bulls.

But that’s another story.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
7-24, 2008 Column
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