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The Power of the Dog

First published in the Aug. 20 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.

I think when I write about a friend or loved one who has died, it’s to try to keep the person alive a little bit longer. It’s a greedy thing, sure: “Stay with me! Stay with me, don’t you go, damn it!”
Have done it for four years with my late wife and son. Occasionally, I do the same with my parents, and my buddies Don and Paul, who passed in their prime.
“I had a prime?” Paul would’ve teased.
“Define prime,” Don would’ve said.
Similarly, I can’t stop missing Vin Scully. He worked the press box like a character in a Harold Arlen musical. Vinny was the best thing to happen to baseball since beer.
Vin always said that the roar of the crowd was his favorite ballpark sound. In his telecasts, he used crowd reaction the way Bach used violins.
Scully never forgot a name, a song lyric, a story. I’m convinced he had a photographic memory, he just didn’t tell anyone. He preferred to be an Everyman, a working-class kid from the Bronx.
I imagine him in that press box because that’s where he was most happy — there or at home with his wife, Sandi.
Man, they had a marriage. He held her hand like no man I’ve ever seen. When Sandi died last year, I told my son Smartacus that Vin would join her soon. It was almost Shakespearean. She was his Juliet.
We all have our favorite spots, our comfort zones. When I remember my late wife, she’s stirring tomato sauce with a wooden spoon. With my son, it’s hiking. When I think of my dad, he’s pushing off from a dock on a glassy Wisconsin lake. When I think of my mom, it’s in her garden, the one Monet must’ve planted.
When I think of Don and Paul, it’s at Dodger games with a cardboard tray of ballpark food in their laps.
These were their little Earth-heavens, the places that made them the most happy.
With my latest loss, Gary, it’s at the little park by the church.
Gary died the other day, a few weeks shy of 80. I called him Dog Park Gary, which he didn’t like. Made him sound like a hobo who lived in a park, he said.
Occasionally, strangers would ask him: “Wait, are you the guy they call Dog Park Gary?” If he complained, I’d say, “Hey, I’m Dog Park Chris. What’s the big deal? Relax!”
For five years, Gary and I met at daybreak with our dogs. His latest project, Jack, was a rescue of unclear vintage — trace of shepherd and pit bull, some boxer mixed in there, possibly some raccoon.
Jack had been on the streets when the shelter took him in, then Gary came along. As if to say, “Hi, I’m here, thank you very much,” Jack arrived home and immediately swallowed a tennis ball whole. The vet told Gary he had a choice: Either expensive surgery or a painful death for Jack. Gary chose the $3,000 surgery, for a mutt he barely knew.
“Worst dog ever,” he’d say when White Fang and I would hang out with them.
For Gary, though, there were no bad dogs. When he first brought Jack home, Gary asked his wife for three months to break the new dog of all his lousy habits.
“Only took four,” Gary would say.
Gary died a day before Vinny. That’s a one-two punch, right there.
Vin and Gary were part of a generation without a name. As Garrison Keillor recently put it, their generation predates narcissism: “The country was too busy fighting fascism and saving the world, they didn’t bother to hand out generational identities.”
What’s going on with these old guys? There aren’t that many left — my dad, my uncles, my touchstones, all gone.
Wait, does that make me the old guy now? Oh, shut up.
Meanwhile, Gary’s orphaned dog is bunking with me on a temporary basis. Jack washes my face every time I bend down to put on shoes. To me, he represents all the good things humans do for dogs. And all the good things dogs do for us. Such a pact.
This week, my friends Lynne and Will are going to give him a permanent place, in a glorious backyard with big slabs of shade where Jack can nap or chase his beloved orange ball. To sweeten the deal, we’re throwing in a pair of Gary’s slippers for Jack to swaddle, a touchstone, a slice of home.
Gary’s daughter, Crystal, says that was her father’s dying wish — please take care of Jack. “Please make sure someone loves that silly dog.”
Got you covered, pal.

Email the columnist at Letters@ChrisErskineLA.com. For books or past columns, please go to ChrisErskineLA.com.

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