Part I of II
by Jim (inabq) Steeves
Silver poodles are born as black as the ace of spades. Samson was no exception. We got him from a fellow Embassy officer in Madrid, Ed Milburn, whose dog delivered her litter just a few weeks before they had to leave Madrid on transfer to Mexico. We had the pick of the litter and followed someone's advice to get the largest pup in the litter. The biggest one couldn't walk very well but Ed said that was normal; he'd eventually figure out that he had four legs and learn how to use them. I'll never forget the squall that little guy put up in the cardboard box as I drove him the few blocks to our apartment and the pitiful wailing all night long the first few nights we had him.
We had selected a name for him that we could remember (his pedigreed name resembled a paragraph in Spanish) but I admit stealing the idea from Kathy Emmons, who, a few years earlier, had a poodle named Plato. We thought it would be a cute and unusual name for such a little creature.
Until Samson was able to hold his water for at least ten minutes he was confined to the part of the apartment that had tiled floors - a large kitchen, pantry, laundry room, and two small bedrooms - most of which constituted the maids quarters in the days when people could afford a live-in maid. On the one hand it was really heart-breaking to hear him cry because, instead of snuggling up with his fellow pups and his mother all night, he was in a gigantic room in that same box and a blanket. On the other hand, by the second night I thought seriously of throwing him off the balcony but my wife said she'd throw me off too. Able to follow that simple logic, I accepted the alternative which was to stumble around like a zombie during the day and wait for the little bugger to settle down. He did, in about a week but not without an hour's racket each night just to remind us that he still had problems with sleeping alone in the kitchen.
Since we got him several weeks before he was weaned, we decided to feed him Similac for a while. He was happy with Similac, but he had a heck of a time getting use to it. He was so small that his tiny pads couldn't get a grip on the tile floor. We poured Similac into a cut-glass ash tray that was much bigger and heavier than he was. He'd take a few slurps but, unable to get a grip, one leg would slide one way, another would go in a different direction and he'd lurch one way, then another and eventually fall over. We had to hold our sides from laughing so hard watching him devote 100% of his attention trying to drink and none at all it seemed to keeping his balance. After a few seconds of amusement, one of us would hold him so he could really go to it. The funniest time was when he was on his own and both front paws slid out from under him. He fell forward into the Similac, did a somersault over the ashtray and landed on his back on the other side. He was covered with Similac but immediately got up, glanced up at us as if to say "Thought I'd try it from this side." and got back to his supper.
In the late fifties or early sixties the Spanish Government decided on a plan to solve a serious tourist problem. Even then, about twenty million tourists visited Spain, but Spanish Tourism officials realized that the great bulk of visitors went to Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga and half a dozen other cities. All that was fine but it was felt that there were dozens of other sites of great touristic interest which weren't on the tourist path. They thus implemented a clever program by which tourists would be drawn to the boonies and be greatly rewarded for their effort in doing so. The plan was to create a system of paradors. A parador is essentially, a hotel but it is firstly a Spanish Government owned hotel. These paradors/hotels were established in places where there were Roman ruins (an amphitheater, an aqueduct, a bridge or a combination of these things), a castle (there are hundreds spread across Spain) or some other outstanding attraction for tourists but one that wasn't great enough alone to draw a tourist 150 miles northwest of Madrid. The draw was this: Any parador is a place of luxury and has a restaurant that makes me weep just to think of it. Prices were dirt-cheap both for accommodations and meals. Some paradors were built new from the ground up and others were built into an existing castle or part of a castle ruin. The work to combine a new hotel into a castle was something to see - modern plumbing, wiring, etc. constituting perhaps 30% of the whole with a castle being the other 70%.
Tourists who knew of the parador system would plan on crossing Spain from, say Barcelona to San Sebastian, and then go southwest toward Portugal. They would plan to stay in three paradors on the way to San Sebastian and another two or three going toward Portugal. Very close to each parador was a significant tourist attraction. My wife and I visited many paradors in our few years in Spain and it's a wonder that we didn't expire from the quantity of excellent food found at all of them. One dish consisted of around 12 plates per person.
Well, this story is about one parador and Samson, our then poodle pup. We checked into the parador in San Sebastian (if memory serves correct) and noted that the front of the building was a castle. The lobby and hotel desk were built in one great room of the castle and from that point on, it was all brand new hotel. The lobby was huge with a floor covered by reed mats and contained dozens of very large potted palms.
Our routine was to make sure this pup had plenty of opportunities to do his business in the proper places and that meant I was responsible for getting him to such a place at whatever time of night he wanted. He always awoke my wife first who in turn rammed a thumb into my side. My response was automatic and lightening-quick. I jumped out of bed, often fell over something in my haste to pull on a pair of pants which I'd left hanging on the room door knob for quick action, jammed my feet into shoes and off we went. I knew we had literally seconds to spare on this maneuver.
On this occasion, my hair sticking straight up and my shirt on backwards and one of my wife's shoes on part of one foot I got his lease on and we headed toward the lobby. Samson was pulling me along so I knew this was going to be close. All was going pretty well until we got to the lobby when, satisfied that he'd made it outside, he lifted his leg and let go. Well hell, it looked like out doors to that little guy but I knew different so I kept pulling him along across the lobby toward the main entrance but when we got there he was done. There was a dark streak across twenty feet of reed mats that betrayed our awful deed. It was also about 3:30 in the morning and no one saw it. I couldn't blame Samson. Hell, they'd successfully disguised the lobby so well it looked like outdoors. My conscience bothered me all the way through a truly magnificent breakfast in the parador restaurant. Samson, of course, sat under our table while we ate, the Spanish being civilized about dogs, and children, who behave.
In 1973, in Madrid, I felt it was time to take my then six months old poodle pup, Samson to some place where there were trees. Outside of parks there were not a lot of trees in Madrid and Samson hadn't been properly trained in the business of lifting his leg. Well, he could lift it but his aim was laughable - he rarely ever hit the target of a lamppost, parking meter, etc. One day I decided to try to correct that deficiency by taking him somewhere where I was certain to find some trees. Of course, city parks had trees but the closest park to where I lived was several miles away and the local constabulary probably wouldn't appreciate that sort of training in such a nice place. So I decided to take him to the area beyond Barajas Airport (probably known these days as Barajas International Airport - to distinguish it from the many other "Barajas Airports" in Madrid). I knew there was a rural residential area out beyond the airport so this would be an exploration trip that hopefully would end up as a nice chance for Samson to run around and pick up some really strange smells.
We didn't find any trees but we did find an area where there was lots of vegetation, still some distance from the nearest houses. Samson happily trotted from bush to bush; there was no road traffic and all seemed well until a Boeing 707 started to take off. There was no view of the airport through the vegetation but we must have been located just beyond a perimeter fence - at the end of a runway! Anyway, the sound of a jet taking off grew louder as it approached us and in a short while Samson, totally terrified, ran toward me from a bunch of bushes about 30 feet distant. At this point the jet was almost overhead and a few hundred feet in altitude. When he got to about six feet from me he leapt and I caught him. Almost immediately the plane passed overhead. He shook terribly but then, as the sound moved away, he calmed down and wanted down to resume sniffing the territory. No doubt he felt that his daddy had saved him from a dreadful monster.
In May of 1974 my wife and I said farewell to Madrid, the locale of our meeting, marriage and two years of wedded bliss, but our dog Samson had left some time ahead of us. Since our onward post of assignment was Dublin, and Ireland imposes a quarantine on all animals (except race horses, so I'm told) of six months, we decided to send Sammy ahead of us so that he could get some time under his....ah....belt while we were free to pack up our possessions and attend farewell parties, without having to worry about him being alone in the apartment both during day as well as the evening.
Ireland has one place where they quarantine animals which is actually on a farm north of Dublin about thirty miles, along the east coast of Erie.
Each dog has a run which is about four feet in width, twenty feet in length and at one end, a common shed that is split up corresponding to each individual dog's run. This shelter is heated with light bulbs. At the end of the run, opposite from the shed, is a gate through which big dogs can get up on their hind legs and look out at the normal activities of the farm. Samson was a little bugger so he had to jump high to get a brief glimpse of anything.
We visited Dublin to consult with the communications officer, whom I was going to replace in two months' time, but also took the opportunity to visit Samson.
When we got there and were shown his run, we were astonished at this creature that was covered in mud and with fur that almost reached the ground. He certainly wasn't recognizable as our year old pup.
The gate was opened and we reluctantly walked into his run. It took a few seconds before he recognized us. When he did, he charged at us and ran around our legs and jumped up on us. We didn't really want to touch him but, of course, did. Then, a few seconds later there was a riot of barking from one end of the quarantine enclosure as, I realized, the first dog at that end saw a cow or horse passing the quarantine buildings. (I imagined that the dogs in both the first and last pens had a special responsibility of notifying all the other dogs of an approaching farm animal.) Of course the next dog picked up the racket and it carried on down the line until Samson got the message and left us to charge toward the gate. There he bounded up and down and barked like crazy. This "wave" of barking then passed on down the line and Samson turned around, content that he'd done his duty. He then stopped when he saw us and then once again he ran to us to resume his greeting. It was as though he'd been interrupted by very important business and in the process of taking care of it, forgot we were there. Again we reached way out and petted him but, as before, the barking from up the line started again. We watched this cycle of events three times, and each time he "forgot" we were there.
At that point, we realized that he wasn't starving to death because we had him sent off to prison for crimes he hadn't committed. He was a real dog, well, to be accurate, a real filthy dog, and seemed to have settled in quite well. The manager of the facility assured us that, when his time was up, he'd be groomed and beautiful, so we left in confidence that it would be so. In the process of going to the quarantine facility our minds were put to rest in spite of the advice given by some friends that we should put him entirely out of mind while he was there; that to see him would make it worse for him and us. It was well meant advice but now we knew it just wasn't the case.
At the end of his six months, after we had spent three of them in The New Jury's Hotel waiting for our house to be available, we went for our little guy and he was, indeed, beautiful. We let him out of the car on the way back to Dublin and he had a wonderful romp across an open field and returned to us with tongue lolling and seeming delighted to be back with us.
In our new home he lifted his leg once, while we watched, but we yelled at him. He turned, went out the door and marked his new property. He never threatened to make a mess in the house again. He was a very fine little pet.
In the summer of 1975, in a place called Glendalough, our twelve pound silver poodle snatched the opportunity to inflict terror in a flock of sheep and his two owners. Glendalough is a lovely picnic area located perhaps twenty miles south of Dublin. It's a very quiet place with grass, trees, a lovely waterfall that drops about 100 feet from the heights and splashes into a shallow pool. It's a fine place for little kids to play but one needs to beware of the extremely steep slope that drops from the top of the cliff from which the waterfall flows. There are grass and outbreaks of rocks on that slope and, on this day, a bunch of sheep which belonged on a farm up above. I assumed, when thinking of it later, that the sheep normally wandered about and returned to their barn when it was time.
On this day, not the first we had gone there with Samson, we relaxed and he wandered around inspecting the smells that were new since his last visit. We never had to put a lease on that little guy nor had we ever really trained him to obey our commands. He just did. It's hard to remember the details but we had been there perhaps twenty minutes when he started to bark, rapidly and fiercely, and then he took off. We looked around to see why this normally quiet dog - then about two years old - was carrying on so. And we saw why. On the slope, a flock of sheep had been eating their way down toward the park like area where we were about to picnic, but they were suddenly given freight by Samson and they went nuts. Well, I know, sheep panic easily and the evidence was before our eyes. I was horrified because I could imagine the bill for sheep with broken legs. Those poor animals bounded up, down and sideways while Samson ran after them. It took several minutes before I could catch up to him and by then not a sheep was in sight. As dogs will do, when his work was done he was ready for food and rest and I was ready for the nearest pub. Imagine going on a picnic without whiskey! Even though St. Patrick supposedly drove the snakes out of Ireland, I was a fool to take a chance.
In the mid seventies milk was still delivered to houses in Ireland by milkmen. They delivered milk, cream or whatever, right to the front door. Milk and cream was in one pint bottles and the top was closed with a thick paper cap that was stuck down a bit into the neck of the bottle. Some of you other old-timers may remember such bottles in use in the U.S. way back before fire was invented.
Well, a black bird found all over Europe, had learned that a great treat was available to them if they'd peck that paper top off the bottle and drink the cream that had floated to the top. Anyone who got to their fresh milk after a bird had got to it poured it down the drain to avoid any disease the bird might have carried. So, it was important to be alert to the arrival of the milkman.
One of Samson's duties was to tell us when the milk was delivered. This he did faithfully every day but the method by which he did it left room for improvement. Wherever he was in the house when the milkman came, he ran like crazy to the front door and jumped up against it, barking like a fool. The real problem, as the milkman once pointed out to us, was that the front door was glass in a wood frame. I remember him saying that one day Samson was going to break that glass because he jumped so hard against it.
I don't remember why I was home on that day but I was and my wife and I were in one of the back bedrooms when the milkman came. Samson, right on cue, took off like a shot barking up a storm. Then we heard a crash. We rushed to the door and saw about half the glass, in ragged bits, still stuck to the frame and the rest outside in the driveway, with Samson. The milkman stood there looking like he was going to faint. Samson stood still, in shock. I rushed to him and found a slash under his belly and the front part of his right hind leg open to the bone. My wife got a blanket, we wrapped him up and headed for the vet whose "surgery" was two miles down the road. We didn't give a hoot about the front door and figured if the Tinkers (the Irish version of Gypsies.....from whom the expression "a Tinker's damn" comes) came they could take whatever they wanted. We had no children yet so Samson was our "son."
We were very fortunate. In spite of the many slashes he suffered, no serious harm was done. The vet put in a hundred or so stitches, kept him for a few days and he was as good as new. Except that, for a couple of days, I had to lift his leg for him. But I won't go into that.
In Dublin we had our favorite neighborhood pub and were well acquainted with a few others just in case the favorite burned down. Everyone in Ireland has a regular pub. As in many other European countries, people generally joined friends at such places which required no large living rooms which few people had in their home, or the chore of having to prepare the house for guests and cleaning up a mess after company left.
Our pub was about eight blocks away and could hold perhaps 150 patrons in...I think, about four main rooms. It was a really comfortable pub, particularly in winter because it had a massive fireplace in each of the main rooms and we usually got there early enough to set where we, or perhaps I should say, Samson, wanted.
There were tables and chairs, of course, but we favored the upholstered lounge benches. These benches had high backs and on the wall, above the back, every ten feet or so, was a push-button, like a door bell button. A person summoned a waiter for another drink, or launched a poodle, by giving the button a push. It sounded just like the door bell at home.
The Irish, like the Spanish and Germans (and perhaps other nationalities) permitted well-behaved animals in their pubs and, being the head honcho of our household, Samson always went to the pub with us. He had his favorite room and favorite spot in it, one which gave him a good view of the room and one end of the bar (actually, the serving area) and beyond into part of one of the other main rooms. He perched on the bench and kept an eye on all who entered. He had one particularly cute trait, that of crossing one front paw over the top of the other. It was apparently the most comfortable way for him to lay when he didn't lay on his side which he found entirely too informal for a pub. I need hardly say that he attracted a lot of attention. He accepted this attention as being natural - after all who could resist a miniature silver poodle, with a front paw crossed over the other, alertly watching the activity in his room? Because so many people asked to pet him, we got to meet folks whom we otherwise wouldn't have, which is one of the things we liked about pubs. But....when anyone pushed the button for another round, (and some did just to watch the little devil) Samson took off. Everyone laughed and watched him charge toward the bar but he immediately responded to my call to stop and come back. Certainly the gov'nor would have told us if this was any problem and he never did. I suspect the gov'nor would have given us a discount for the extra business Samson brought in, had we asked for one.
That little dog sometimes really made us laugh. One thing that he did constantly almost betrayed how smart he really was. For example, in Dublin the trash was collected once a week. We had the standard trash barrel which was about half the size commonly seen anywhere in the U.S. I'd put that barrel out by the sidewalk in the late afternoon or early evening, often when Samson was running around sniffing this or that. Yet, during our last stroll up the street at night, he'd run around here and there and often suddenly discover that he was alongside a huge dark object which was that barrel and he'd scramble like crazy away from it; I mean his toe nails would dig the pavement. He never minded any other barrel but just couldn't get accustomed to that barrel being in front of our house once a week.
He did teach me a valuable lesson in humility. Some nights we went to a play or do something where he wouldn't have been welcomed and he caught on somehow that he was going to be left at home. He'd go somewhere in the house, usually in the hallway where we'd be certain to see him, and lean against the wall. He would not look straight at us when we talked to him and took no pleasure in being petted. His attitude could be described as "You are leaving the country and don't want me anymore?" "Have you any concept of the cruelty involved in such a thing?" "Have I done something that awful?" "Do you hate me so?" "Am I such a bad dog?" "You won't give me one last chance to show I can be good enough for you?"
But we'd go. On our return we would quietly enter the house and look for him. He would generally be somewhere that provided a view of the hallway but he wouldn't budge; not a move or sound. When one of us would call him though, he ran delightedly and welcomed us home. We were instantly forgiven the worst crimes imaginable and that was the lesson I learned. I can't claim to have practiced it as well as he did, but there has been a change.
I knew one other dog, also a silver poodle that Kathy Emmons had in Bonn, which behaved in a similar fashion except that Plato always found one item and ripped it to shreds while she was gone. Kathy usually took him to work and often to other places but when she went out with friends and Plato got left home, he had his revenge. I wonder if all poodles have such wacky characteristics. If so, I'd like to hear about them.
Samson, our silver, miniature poodle, demonstrated his good sense by knowing when to fold and wait for another day. We scarcely ever had to put his lease on and, of course, he always had the full run of "his yard" of which there was about half an acre around our house in Cape Town. Although there was a gate to close the driveway from the street, in three years I never had cause to swing it shut. Samson never strayed up or down the street, though I did see him now and then by the deep grass opposite the street from our house. The folks across the street had a big, old Lab. He was a fine old dog and often did come across the street to visit a few scent spots here and there but never, to my knowledge, ever walked onto our property. On such occasions, we could observe Samson raising all kinds of hell with that Lab, while Samson was on the INSIDE of the fence and the Lab on the outside. I wondered what he was telling that Lab. Was it "It's a good thing for you that you're on the other side of this fence because if I could get at you I'd whup you good and send you back across the street to your own place you miserable bag of old bones?"
Whatever it was, the Lab never once took notice. He was old but weighed about 90 pounds and little Sam only got up to around 12 pounds just after a big meal.
It was therefore really funny the day I watched the usual rituals take place, Samson barking like crazy, moving along inside the fence while the Lab slowly wandered along the grass verge outside the fence. On this occasion, though, Samson got so carried away that he wandered onto the driveway, still barking furiously but with nothing separating him from the Lab other than about 8 feet of space. Then Samson awoke to the situation, swallowed a bark and slowly backed away, head and tail on a slight downward slant then he remembered something that needed urgent attention around the back of the house. The Lab still never took notice.
Although Samson weighed only 18 pounds and his head would fit into the palm of an adults hand, his mouth, when fully opened, seemed to be larger than his head. He reckoned he could restore peace and quiet whenever bedlam required. Accordingly, whenever anyone within earshot (his, not ours) shouted either in anger or exuberance, Samson felt moved to intervene. He did this by charging at the offender or offenders, who might be laughing loudly. He jumped repeatedly up and down like a yo-yo and barked up a storm. Whenever the offender was seated, he would lock onto a wrist and inflict great punishment - well, at least it would get a little wet. My wife and I would occasionally provoke him into his "peace making" routine by shouting something and raising a hand as though to strike the other. Samson would jump on the "victim's" lap and grab hold of the wrist of the striking hand. Though he was quick he never even came close to breaking skin; in fact, when he held a wrist in his mouth, it didn't even hurt. There was no question, though, about his intent. His growl was surprisingly loud for such a little creature and he looked fierce. Quite simply, he detected disharmony in the family and meant to squelch it promptly. We always acted as though he had frightened us into submission and then we'd go into reverse mode and give each other hugs and kisses which seemed to get him even more excited so he'd bark more though he never undertook to tear us limb from limb for that behavior.