The greatest comfort in my life comes from the presence of Sir Corwin the Beautiful Dog-faced Dog, Brindled Beast of Sylmar. He was named on faith. When my wife and I adopted him he was a tiny puppy. We were told he was brindled but he seemed to be black with a single, dark brown streak on his shoulder. He grew in odd fits and spurts that made us worry at times. One day we woke up and he had a giant head stuck on his little puppy body. Another day, his legs were very long and he seemed pinheaded. We really didn't know how he would turn out. He matured into his name splendidly.
He has a noble face and sad, communicative eyes. As he became an adult, his coloring turned out to be a rare, dark, reverse brindle that draws comments from strangers.
Corwin is a rare pit/akita/lab/mastiff/sharpie/king corso purebred. At the dog park, I tell his admirers that he comes from a long line of promiscuous mongrels, just like me. They chuckle and tell me that he has a beautiful coat.
While he is a strong dog, athletic and powerful at almost seventy pounds, he is not particularly aggressive or dominant. At the off leash park where we take him almost every day, he has proven time and again that he's capable of playing well with others. He wrestles hard with dogs that can handle hard wrestling and he wrestles gently with puppies, often lying on his back and allowing them to gnaw on his neck. He's not much of a runner, but he's enough of a strategist to engage runners by intersecting their wide circles and thumping chests with them as they pass.
On July 2nd, 2005, I ran late getting him out of the house and the regular morning crowd was gone when we got to the park. Corwin and I shared the park with one woman walking three golden retrievers. Friendly beast that he is, Corwin ran up to the retrievers and introduced himself. One of the dogs twigged. It snarled and attacked Corwin. I don't expect that from retrievers – from any dog, really, but retrievers especially tend to be good-natured – so it took me a moment to react. By the time I did, the others had joined in. The woman who owned the golden dogs panicked and began shrieking at her dogs, "Ajax, no! No, Ajax!" and then, "Stop it! Just stop it!"
I pulled Corwin back by his haunches to get him clear of danger and wrapped my arms around him, hugging him, scratching his chest and saying, "It's okay, Buddy. Settle down."
But the golden retrievers had become an aggressive pack and the woman didn't know how to control her dogs. She still thought that screaming commands was going to solve the problem. While she yelled, the dogs came in at Corwin, snarling and snapping. I wasn't going to hold him still and let him be mauled so I released him, at least allowing him to defend himself. He didn't want the fight. He ran. But as I said before, he's not a runner. The three angry goldens stayed right behind him as he tore around in a big circle. He tucked his butt under him for speed and raced to the one place he thought he could be safe. He ran back to me and tucked himself between my legs. Again I bent down to hold him and protect him. I pushed away the three dogs with my right hand, shouting, "Lady, get control of your damn dogs! Stop yelling and just put 'em on a leash!" Apparently specific instruction was what she needed. My hand got bitten up badly enough that, had I gone to a hospital there would have been an animal control form to fill out, but after a few moments she got her dogs leashed and I took Corwin to a picnic table where I checked him for injuries before calling it a short day and taking him home.
I put the harness on him that allows me to seat belt him into the back of the car for safety and I drove up the five freeway lost in the dreamy world that comes after adrenaline action. I found myself reviewing an experience from my youth.
I was fourteen or fifteen years old and I was home on vacation from my first year at prep school. My father took me out for pizza. We sat together in a booth. I know it was my freshman year because I was wearing a greek fisherman's cap that my grandfather had bought me and it was during my freshman year that I wore it all the time as a personal fashion statement.
At another table, three young men – all in their early or mid-twenties – talked loudly. They cursed a lot and made demeaning comments to the waitress. My father asked the waitress to send out the manager, another young man in his twenties, and asked him to have the boys keep it down. The manager spoke briefly with them and then went back to the kitchen. After a few minutes, the three young men came to stand threateningly over our table. One of them took up a position of leadership. The others stood near him, looming.
"What'samatter?" He said to my father. "You can't come tell us to be quiet yourself? You gotta go call the manager?"
My father said, "Alright, boys." He did not stand up.
I imagined driving my fork into the guy's leg and then throwing a shoulder into the first one of his friend's to move toward me.
"You got a problem with us but you're too much of a coward to come talk to us? That it? Well now you're talkin' to us. Whattayou gotta say?"
I imagined my father dressed as Captain America and me as Bucky, the young sidekick, striking powerful, comic-book blows side by side. I looked down at my plate and smirked a little bit, so as not to seem frightened.
My father said, "Alright, boys."
The bullying young man turned his attention on me. He said, "What are you laughing about? You think this is funny?" He pushed my hat down over my eyes.
"Alright, boys," my father said.
One of the other young men started getting impatient and the trio snorted a few more derisive words at us and left the restaurant. My father and I didn't talk much as we finished our pizza. When we left, he was nervous walking to the car and I knew he was afraid they were waiting in the parking lot.
The whole event played through several times in my head as I drove Sir Corwin home from the park. Then, with his beautiful beastiness lying on the floor near me, I soaked my retriever-bitten hand in a sink full of stinging, burning hydrogen peroxide until bubbles stopped rising from the small puncture wounds.
The following night I had an opportunity to see my father. He was on his way home to Boston from Singapore and he had a four-hour layover at Los Angeles International Airport. We met at the Daily Grill in the Tom Bradley International Terminal and drank scotch. He told me about his trip. I told him about his grand-dog and explained why my hand was lightly bandaged. Then we discussed the event at the pizzeria. We remembered the event almost identically, which is rare when it comes to shared family memories, though we had slightly different takes on it. I tried to tell him my end of the experience without including how disappointed in him I had felt at the time. I had wanted to feel protected but instead felt as though, like me, he was just waiting to find out how badly we were going to be victimized. Then he said, "You were going into your usual, self-protective smart-ass routine and I just wanted to diffuse things before you made them worse." I flushed at his words. I remembered the smirk, my last grasp at dignity that evening long ago. But I rankled at the thought that somehow he had been thinking of me as a liability as I had been imagining us fighting our oppressors as a team.
I said, "Uh-huh. But... at what point would you have done something? Diffusing things is fine but isn't there a point where you have to do something?"
In the comfort and safety of a bar at LAX, my father said with absolute certainty and confidence, "Oh, if they'd laid a hand on you, I would've been on them in a heartbeat."
I sipped my scotch and remembered the guy pushing the hat down over my eyes. I nodded and hated myself for still being angry about it. I was pretty sure I saw a flicker of awareness in my father's sad, communicative eyes, the moment when he remembered that a hand had been laid on me. In that moment, I suspect he hated himself for his current revision and for his past cowardice just as much as I did. But we didn't discuss that. We discussed other things. And then he flew to Boston.
Corwin hates the fourth of July. It's not a philosophical thing. He just doesn't like fireworks. He doesn't know what they are, but they're very loud and scary.
As our neighbors celebrated with M-80s and Jack Blasters, Sir Corwin the Beautiful Dog-faced Dog curled closer and closer against me on the couch until all sixty-nine pounds of him were huddled in my lap, his sad eyes looking up at me, pleading with me to make it stop. I warded off the snarling, slathering pack of retrievers. Surely I could silence the explosions outside our town-house. I petted him lovingly, hugged him, and sang Sondheim's "Nothin's gonna harm you" over and over again into his velvety ear. I couldn't make the threat go away, but at least I could offer him comfort. I felt very strong and heroic and filled to overflowing with love. In the end I brought him to my fairly well sound-proofed home-office and put on some classical music to drown the outside bleed-through and calm Corwin’s nerves.
I called my father to follow up on our conversation at the airport. I said, "You know, I think it bears mentioning that regardless of how we felt about ourselves and each other that night in 1978, you made a good call. We both wound up safe at home, unharmed."
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah. That's probably the important thing. Huh?"
And I said, "yeah, Dad. You done good."
We all live with our own fears and weaknesses, our regrets and resentments. We look back on our mistakes and our failures and we all seek comfort where we can get it. Now and then, when the opportunity arises, it feels good to offer a bit of comfort to someone else. It’s good to let someone feel forgiven if when you don’t feel entirely forgiving.
That night – or maybe the next -- I noticed, as I was about to plunge my healing hand into the stinging peroxide, an odd expression crossing my face. I pretended to smile, feeling strong and heroic and powerful. But as I studied my reflection, dipped my hand and waited for the wounds to stop stinging and bubbling, I realized it was just a habitual smirk that I adopted so I wouldn’t seem frightened.