I have mentioned Mr. Charlie one other time that I can remember; the old man who lived across from us on the bank of the Hatchie River. He is something of a legend for those that have fished in that area, not only because of the gargantuan catfish he would haul out, or that he knew every hole and bend in that river, but also because he was the guy that would get you out of a bind should your boat quit, or, as on many occasions, someone would have too much to drink and get their truck stuck or otherwise find themselves in trouble. He was thought of as “The Mayor of Hatchie” and is the central figure in this childhood recollection of mine.
I suppose Mr. Charlie was about 70 and I was about 9 or 10 years old when this story takes place. While adults would recall him as being a friendly man, ready to give anything to help anyone in need, I remember him as friendly enough, but pretty cantankerous. He had a high-pitched voice and cursed like a sailor complete with “ G– Damn’s” and all. If I recall correctly, a few of his fingers were missing the tips, I never asked how it happened. He was, to me as a boy, a bit scary, though I spent a number of nights at his house and knew he always thought well of me. In all, he was a good man. The kind of man who becomes part of the place he lived and that place becoming part of him; a rare thing in this world and I am fortunate to have experienced it.
Note: This story may seem familiar. I wrote and published an earlier version of this story from the remembrance of it from early childhood, though after writing it was brought to my attention that a few of the important details were wrong. I think the sentiment is still good so I have endeavored to correct it. While the story is not as good as the original, I suppose it is better to have the real thing rather than a tale. Perhaps then I’ll use the earlier version in a novel some day.
Mr. Charlie loved his dogs and had several of them over the years, though usually only one at a time. None that I can remember were very big dogs but each were good at doing what country dogs do: mark their territory, chase off other dogs, and kill varmints. In the backwoods, your dog is your constant companion. Whenever you are outside — which is often — they are there, at your heels or close by. The dog which marks this story actually belonged to his son, though he treated it as his own.
My mom also had a dog, Peanut, a cocker spaniel and city dog with a soft coat and very little sense. Peanut enjoyed biting at flies…even when there were no flies to be bitten. While Mr. Charlie’s dogs were all kinds of useful, Peanut was simply naïve. It’s important to understand that country dogs are not typically leashed, at least, not when and where I grew up. Such was the privilege of being a country canine and such was the case on this day for both Peanut and the step-dog. My mom and I were taking Peanut down to the river, near Mr. Charlie’s house, when the step-dog came running into the open field we were in. Before either of us knew what was happening, the dog had Peanut by her shaggy ear, thrashing her with no apparent intention on this just being a warning. Peanut is hollering, which is all she knew how to do, and my mom and I are yelling and likely crying as our dog is being torn to pieces, helpless to do anything to stop them.
Mr. Charlie came running over, tomato stick in hand, calling after his son’s dog, but he would not relinquish his hold. He grabbed the mutt by the scruff and beat the ever-loving tar out of that dog until he finally let go. What happened next is a bit of a blur, at least, the timing of events seem both incredibly drawn out and quick at the same time. The attacking dog was taken off by Mr. Charlie, and poor Peanut was laying in the dirt, a bloody mess, with steady whines and whimpers I thought would be her last. The tears are in my eyes now and the fog of adrenaline has not yet cleared, when moments later I heard the unmistakable crack of gunfire behind Mr. Charlie’s house. He had put his son’s dog down.
Many times when we talk about responsibility we think in terms of men “Being good fathers” and “Holding down a job” or “Keeping their word”, etc. Those are all fine examples, but in some ways shows how far we have fallen. We consider someone responsible for doing the things which ought to be a common-sense standard.
Mr. Charlie could have made a case that his son’s dog was in the right. After all, here comes a strange dog around people he knew and trusted. As it turned out, Peanut was not injured all that badly and perhaps over time things would have been smoothed over between neighbors. Yet, he didn’t do that. He saw the dog as his responsibility and the incident as an extension of his character as a man. He believed his relationship with his neighbors was more important than his animal companion. His actions are beyond difficult for me to imagine, should I be in his situation with my dogs, yet, I have never met a man to whom I have recounted this story that did not have a profound respect for the decisive measures he took.
The rightness or wrongness of his actions can be debated. In some ways Mr. Charlie represents the dichotomy of a man who, should we believe the modern ideal, cannot exist. The man who loves yet is very masculine in how he goes about it. The man who loves his dogs but is willing to put them down if they cross a certain line. The man who is willing to give and give to strangers and then when he could in turn ask for something to be given to him, in this case forgiveness, chooses to continue giving, even to the point of death.
I have often wondered what Mr. Charlie said to that dog before he pulled the trigger. He passed several years ago and I never had the opportunity to ask. I can just as easily imagine him saying something like “ Well, you g– damned dog, you’ve done it.” as I can “ I’m sorry about this, friend.” Many people might say such an event would leave a kid scarred, destined to live a life afraid of guns and dogs. Maybe it did scar me a bit, and, whenever I look at that scar, I see Mr. Charlie coming to the rescue with his tomato stick.