Remembering Max, one of my all time great dog pals, who would have been 41 years old this month. Thinking of him brings a few tears to my eyes.
The story of this foursome began with two. Jeff and I were childhood friends from the first day we met when he was three years old and I was the ripe old age of four. Throughout our early years some would say we did not have much in common. He was small. I was large. He was the consummate builder, having erected at least 4 forts by the age of ten. I was the young woodsman wandering the forests in our area in search of the unusual. Jeff was a diabetic from the age of eight. I was pretty healthy although a little on the chubby side. Jeff came from a larger family. I came from a smaller one. Jeff was charismatic and I desired to be a great athlete but lacked the necessary talent.
Despite these apparent differences we spent most of our time together. We spent hours and hours playing in Jeff’s forts reinventing ourselves to the characters we chose. Sometimes we were pioneers. Sometimes we were World War II GI’s fighting the Gerries. Sometimes we included others, but mostly we did not. For all of our dissimilarities we were together an awful lot. We were emotionally joined at the hip.
Although neither one of us knew it at the time, we both had deep, dark, family secrets. We both were wrestling with major issues. We never discussed these until we were nearly adults. But we knew, somehow we just knew.
It’s funny when you’re bonded to someone and you don’t know why. It doesn’t matter. You just are. It is said no child gets to pick his parents. Jeff and I didn’t really pick each other. Fate and odd similarities were our mutual bond.
Although that may sound bleak it wasn’t. Our individual differences made up our mutual strength. It taught us both to be slightly more tolerant and forgiving. We both learned to appreciate those who were different from ourselves. Jeff and I did, and do share, at least one common trait, we are both compassionate people.
So it was. We bicycled together, played ball together, sledded together, and played board games together. All of the normal childhood activities were shared between the two of us. We spent so much time together over the years that in our early adult years we often knew what each other were thinking.
In our early adult lives, both on some sort extended break from college, we decided to get a place together. We took the first place we found, an ant infested cottage that was about ready to fall over. The cottage, listed at a fifteen degree angle, sat on a high knoll of sand and gravel above a small lake. The lake was pretty busy in the summer and we had the cottage until it would get too cold to keep the uninsulated pipes from freezing.
One evening over a beer or two, Jeff and I decided we would like to get a dog. It sounded like a great idea. Both of us had our share of dogs as children. We thought we knew what we were getting into. We failed to calculate the unknown; that like people, dogs have individual personalities.
Within a week Jeff had located a puppy through either a newspaper ad or an old girlfriend, I really don’t remember which. He picked the pup up and the woman who was giving the puppies away said they called him Bakeware. She explained they called him that name because he was always the first puppy to the bottom of the food dish where the word “Bakeware” was stenciled into the bottom of the glass bowl.
Jeff spent the first day on the beach with our new puppy trying to attract girls, a constant pursuit in Jeff’s life. I met Max that evening when I got home from work. He told me that the puppy was called Bakeware by the previous owners. I shook my head, indicating we could do better than that.
When it came to things like naming something, Jeff and I could be pretty silly. I don’t remember who came up with the name Max, but we immediately knew it somehow fit the puppy. Max seemed like a name for a dog that was bold, self confident, and maybe a little bull headed; all traits that proved to be part of Max’s personality.
You’d think the name Max would be more than adequate. Nope, it wasn’t , and here is where the silly part comes in. Within a week we had given the full name of Maximillian Schnelling Von Oglethorpe Burgerbits to our new companion. The name stuck throughout his entire life.
Max was part Black Labrador and part hound. He swam like an otter and chased game like a wolf. He was an athlete that could run for hours at a time or cross a river on a four inch tree trunk at full speed.
Max was never a third wheel in our trio. There would be no having that. Max was a fully vested partner in our adventures in life. He expected to be included in everything.
Like any young puppy, Max needed to be “trained”. We were less than skillful at this art and so Max had a few shortcomings in this puppyhood. There was the time he ate most of the couch. And another time he chewed up a rug. But, by and large, he learned quickly and figured out what proper dog manners were; at least for the most part.
From his early days Max had one strange trait that neither Jeff nor I could ever explain or understand. Whenever he saw a police officer in uniform he would growl.
Jeff and I would take him on long hikes in the woods, car trips half way across the country, and much shorter trips to the local convenience store. He would share our eight hamburgers for a dollar from Burger Chef, and hang his head out the window at Abdow’s Big Boy Drive-In where he would bark at the speaker phone like he was ordering his dinner. Max was one of the gang.
Somewhere along the line Jeff and I gave Max a cartoon voice. It is hard to describe but the voice was somewhere in between Popeye the Sailorman and Yogi Bear. We had whole conversations speaking for Max. Some of friends thought us odd, but most found it hilarious. The more people laughed the more we did it. To this day I speak for my dogs. The accent and voice have changed slightly, after all each dog is different, but the humor remains the same.
For a long time our schedule was perfect for being dog owners. I worked during the day and Jeff worked mostly at night. During the day Max would pal around with Jeff checking out every possible girl in the area and in the evenings he would run the forest and the back roads with me. He enjoyed every minute of his time with both of us.
I suppose it was inevitable that things would change. Jeff had traveled a little in Europe earlier in life and wanted to experience this again. I was up for a shorter version of the excursion; I knew I had to get back to college. We decided to travel together for a short time. I would return and Jeff would stay for an extended experience. But what to do with Max?
We had a friend who needed a place to stay for the summer so we let him have our apartment. He would take care of Max. He was a responsible chap, and so there was no great need to worry.
We had a grand time hitch-hiking around Europe. I had to return home a little early because I was out of cash. When I returned, Max ignored me for more than a week. In his eyes we had betrayed him, and worse, with Jeff still in Europe the trio was no more.
With a little time Max came around. He was a little bitter, but I went out of my way to entertain him. I took him to the Allagash where he and I bushwacked a lengthy section of that wilderness area. Max was in all his glory chasing moose and snowshoe hare. We were gone for about ten days and it solidified our relationship. Max was happy to be in a duo, at least for now.
That same summer I was working as an usher in a theater in a nearby city. Behind the theatre and parking lot there was a lake. I used to like to go down to the lake and sit as it was the only half natural place for about ten miles. I found it comforting after dealing with all of the theatre customers. One afternoon while walking across the parking lot to go sit by the lake I saw a car speeding away across the parking lot from the vicinity of the lake. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it did seem a bit odd. I climbed over the guardrail that separated the parking lot from the lake where there was a small sandy beach. Standing there I thought I saw motion in the water. I looked more intently and unbelievably I thought I could see a dog walking on the bottom of the lake. I rubbed my eyes and looked again and directly in front of me emerging from the cold waters of the lake was a very wet dog tied to two cement blocks. This dog had one hell of a will to live. He came out of the lake bottom coughing out water. I grabbed one of the ropes tied to the cement block and helped him ashore. Right there before me stood a scraggly dog, perhaps six months old, and despite all of his great difficulties he actually appeared to be smiling.
I could not turn down a dog that had such a will to live. Supporting two dogs in those days was a little beyond my means, but I was determined to figure it out. As we drove home that evening a song by Flatt and Scruggs was on the radio. The dog started to howl, in tune, with the melody. From that day on he was known as Scruggs.
Scruggs looked like a collie but had German Shepard coloring. I introduced him to Max. Max wasn’t too impressed at first. He liked being part of a duo. Max decided Scruggs needed to know his place, so at his very first contact he beat the poor fellow up. It was a bad day for Scruggs, first someone tried to drown him and now he gets taken to a new home where a strange dog beats him up! Somehow he didn’t mind. After the altercation he did that Scruggs smile, the same smile he had when he emerged from the lake. Max now had a pal, one he would dominate for the rest of his life mind you, but he had a true pal. They slept side by side that night on the foot of my bed.
Jeff soon returned from Europe, the first of three more trips in the next two years. He had found a new mistress, however this time it wasn’t of the human persuasion, it was the country of Scotland. When Jeff was in the States he mourned for his new found love. His stays at home in the U.S. were temporary for the next several years.
When he returned from Scotland at first Jeff was taken aback by Scruggs. Max was different with Scruggs around. No longer was he dependent upon humans for entertainment, love, and companionship. Max loved Scruggs. There was no doubt about that. I once saw a German Sheperd attack Scruggs for no apparent reason when he was about ten months old. Scruggs was a large dog, but never once fought in his life. The sheperd was wrecking Scruggs when Max came on the scene. Max tore into the sheperd like a lion tears into it’s prey. He upended the sheperd, grabbed him by the throat, and if it wasn’t for my intervention the sheperd would have been dead. Max received a major gash over his right eye. Scruggs, the loyal friend, spent the night licking it. Max accepted the attention with a certain amount of pride. From that day forward whenever Max saw a German Shepard, any German Shepard, he went crazy. No one was going after Scruggs, not on Max’s watch!
After a few car trips, and an outdoor adventure or two, that included all of us, I realized that we were each finding our new positions in this foursome. The biggest change was that it was clear that Scruggs loved Jeff. He’d follow him around the house. I knew the deal was sealed when Jeff took Scruggs one day, without Max, and bought him a hamburger at a local fast food place.
We even gave Scruggs a cartoon voice much like the one Max has been given. It was a little different than the voice we used for Max. Scruggs’ voice was more like a cross of Popeye the Sailorman and Hardee Har Har, partner in crime to Lippy the Lion. Hours and hours in the future would be spent analyzing every event from the world news to the mundane using these crazy two voices. Strangers who didn’t know us and heard us using these voices would give us weird, weird looks.
Jeff and I now had a little apartment in a small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Being small town guys ourselves helped us to blend into the community. I was in and out of college, depending on my finances, and working at night. Jeff was holding down a couple of jobs saving money for his return to the old world. We all knew Jeff’s return to Scotland was inevitable.
Jeff finally saved enough money to head back to Scotland. Jeff would be gone longer this time. We all knew that there was the potential for him to stay there for good.
At the time I was involved in some political causes and those eventually took me to Colorado. I bought a 1956 International milk truck, painted it avocado green with a paint brush, and stenciled One Nation on both sides. The dogs and I, along with three friends, drove 2000 miles together, breaking down multiple times, and finally settling in Fort Collins.
While holding a day job in a factory, I spent most evenings crawling around the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with Max and Scruggs. On weekends the three of us would go camping deep into the Rockies, exploring new areas on nearly every trip. I never fully bonded with my political buddies, but the dogs and I were very happy to be on an adventure of our own.
Over the next year Max, Scruggs, and I would see a lot of territory. We had an extended stay on Nantucket where I broke my leg in two places working on a cranberry farm. With no money but a place to stay we would sit on the beach in Sconset where I would shoot ducks as they flew by and Max would retrieve them. Scruggs would dance on the beach as Max fought the waves gathering our meals. The three of us ate a lot of fowl that winter.
Despite all of our adventures it never seemed quite right without Jeff. It was like an incomplete circle. We all liked it when the end met the beginning; when that happened life seemed complete.
Jeff eventually returned to the States to go back to college. At some point he had rearranged his priorities and decided he needed to get an engineering degree. We all lived together once again. But things were different this time around. The pack was growing. Along the way we had picked up Smitty, our other great friend, along with his dog Mover (Max’s mortal enemy), and another friend, David, and his dog Korak. We all lived in one big, dog hair filled apartment. There was no need for a mattress in your bedroom, you could simply lie down on the 3 feet of dog hair and fall fast asleep.
Life was a very busy affair for all of us; four guys and four dogs going in eight different directions. I was never quite sure what was going on in our house; not that it mattered, life was too short too worry about such trivial things.
Due to unforeseen romances, and the need for new surroundings, Smitty, Jeff, and I moved to a more rural location, and David went in a different direction, also to pursue a new romance.
Now our spare time was spent raising goats, pigs, chickens, tending a garden, and finding the dogs. We didn’t keep a watchful eye on them. It seems totally irresponsible now. Smitty’s dog Mover spent more time in the local pound than he did at home.
Max thought he was in charge of all the farm animals, especially the goats. As a retriever cross hound he really wasn’t any good at herding them, but he sure could chase them away; far, far, away. So far it would take all of us to find them. After they were gone Max couldn’t be bothered. Finding the goats was a job for the people in this pack.
Max was now seven years old, and it was probably the year that he enjoyed the most. He had Jeff. He had Scruggs. He had me. He ran the eons of fields behind our house, went on trips to the Allagash in Maine, visited the local Community College, and ruled the roost at home (from his perspective at least).
That year I was having personal problems and had left the house in the country for a few days. I was trying to figure out what to do in a relationship gone bad, and I needed some time and space to find some answers.
I got a phone call where I was staying. It was Jeff. Max had suddenly died. He had been hit by a police car. Stunned into near oblivion, my first thought was actually kind of funny. I remembered how Max inexplicably growled at a cop every time he saw one. How ironic. Somehow Max had known.
I returned home and together Jeff and I buried Max. I held my own emotionally until Scruggs came over to the freshly filled in hole and tried to dig it back up. We stopped him and he started howling. He howled and howled. And Jeff and I could no longer hold back our anguish for our dear, dear friend and companion. We sobbed, in harmony, as Scruggs sang his farewell song to his best friend; one last song for the one and only Maximillian Schnelling Von Oglethorpe Burgerbits.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in April of 2009-for my good, good friend Jeff.