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One cold November day in 1965, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, a large black dog jumped a backyard fence.

The dog was chained to a stake in the yard. The chain held. It caught the dog in mid air – directly above the fence – and jerked him down hard by his collar. Now the dog hung by his neck, on the free side.

Sometime later, a walking boy came upon this situation.

The boy halted and opened wide his mouth to see. Blood was streaked on the wooden slats of the fence where the dog tried to claw his way back over – blood dripped from the dog’s paws, blood was smeared on the dog’s muzzle. The collar had cinched tight under his jaw, forcing the dog’s head skyward. Tiny gray tufts of condensed breath chugged from the dog’s nose into the cold air and disappeared. He was tired. He hung limp, clenched against the fence, fully extended – his bloody back paws just touching the pavement in a pool of rusting blood. One dark dilated eye stared at the boy.

The boy looked around, up and down the alley. He looked over the fence at the windows of the house. There was no one to tell him what to do, or to run from.

The boy did not belong in this part of town with its brick houses and garages and paved alleys. But to avoid another pounding, he dared take this strange way home from school – it was his seventh new school since kindergarten. He was a migrant kid, an Air Force brat from a trailer park twenty blocks away. His father, a sergeant, worked on the air base. His mother sewed. This nomadic family followed not the changing seasons nor herds of red deer but seemingly pointless commands only the sergeant could hear. Archeological evidence is scarce. They acquired no property and left no tools in their abrupt wanderings to places called McCoy and Barksdale and Mountain Home. They had no knowledge of money. The sergeant’s pay grade was too low to qualify for base housing, where they could live with their own kind, so they had to forage for cheap civilian shelter, where the established locals saw them as carnies, military trash. This life was hard on the boy’s face. All these years later, it’s tempting to think of him as shy or sensitive or even stoic, and in this way to explain why his seamstress mother became so adept with surgical thread, but in truth he was simply fat and too slow and a lot of useless goddamn baggage to drag around the country.

Now, useless, the boy shivered in front of the enormous hanging bloody black civilian dog.

Surprisingly, what happened next is still available for viewing.

It seems very unlikely that Stanley Kubrick heard of this particular incident, but there are fences everywhere, and no doubt the great filmmaker himself once stood in front of one, so three years later, in 1968, to make a point, he was inspired to re-enact a similar scene. In the opening minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a frightened defeated mangy proto-human is confronted by an enormous black monolith. The thing refuses to go away, so he decides to find out if he can touch it and survive. He fights his trembling fingers forward to the surface, touches it, pulls back his hand, survives, touches the thing again, longer, survives, and so forth, until at last he holds his hand to the dog’s surface long enough to feel the labor of breathing. It is, so to speak, the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. But in the movie version the black monolith does not suddenly growl. From deep inside the dog’s throat came a low squeaky underwater rattle. The dog’s eye opened wider. And the boy fell back from himself into a sobbing paralyzed heap.

God knows how long that dog hung on the fence, waiting for the boy on his knees. Certainly long enough for moviegoers to go and get some popcorn.

In the Kubrick telling, the hero hominid goes on to bludgeon his enemies with a large enlightened bone which, afterward, triumphant, he hurls evolving skyward into a twirling spaceship. But in Grand Forks the always watchful boy noticed a commotion at the far end of the alley. Four excited wolves were gathered there. One of them pointed and screamed in delight, “There he is!”

Mark stood up. To this day he can’t explain how. In one motion of his right arm Mark lifted the entire dog and, with his steady left hand, unhooked the dog’s collar. They fell together at the foot of the fence. The dog landed heavily across Mark’s lap. Mark held his bloody head. But the dog’s eyes were empty now.

The boy got up and ran for his life.


I guess there are only two ways out of an alley, and one of them is to turn around like a maniac Siberian berserker and run a pack of boneless boys the other direction, then go back to the fence and sit for a while with what you’ve done, and receive the information. I guess you never forget your first dog. These days I do risk management for construction sites around the country, which is why I’ve been through the Detroit airport roughly 16-dozen times by now. It’s not a place where you expect to find a lot of forgiveness lying around unclaimed. But this morning at Gate 3A someone left a magazine – the Journal of Anthropological Archeology – and I happened to sit down right next to it. On the cover was an artist’s rendering of a large prehistoric black Husky-looking dog. The headline said, “Canids as persons: Neolithic burial at Cis-Baikal.”

Per usual, my flight was late. I read the article, several times over.

Here’s the gist of it:

Eight thousand years ago near Lake Baikal in Siberia there lived a nomadic family called the Andersons (that’s the name of the archeologist who first found their bones). Every year a team of graduate students from Minnesota treks up there to unearth more relatives. Now it turns out the Andersons had a dog. He was found – I’m quoting – “ritualistically interred in a human cemetery.”

It seems “Andy” – that’s what the diggers call him – lived intimately and traveled with these people, “eating their food, sharing their fires and their risks.” From the wear and tear on his vertebrae it appears Andy “carried heavy loads.” And he was often injured, probably in hunts, probably kicked by red deer. But the dog lived a remarkably long time, 10 or 11 years, and his many hairline fractures were healed. This “suggests that after each injury Andy was cared for by someone in the group.”

“His burial in this manner indicates that northern indigenous people believed dogs to be persons on a par with them socially and spiritually… with souls.” The author added charmingly, “But any kid could tell you that.”

Here’s what’s interesting: Andy wasn’t alone. They found him buried alongside a young human male, possibly a boy, it’s not clear, but then everybody was younger in those days. The boy’s left arm was extended under the dog’s head, as if to cradle it. Experts speculate they died at the same time, probably together, of wounds.

The archeological team voted to leave their bones – just finally let them go.


Michael Plemmons lives in rural Wisconsin with three exceptional dogs


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