By Christopher Cudworth
In yesterday’s blog about unintentional cross-training, I documented the benefits of cross training with a paper route in my early years as a competitive distance runner. The early mornings, the extra exercise, the discipline of daily commitment all helped develop a work ethic that lasts till this day.
But I did not reveal the actual dangers of doing that paper route, and what transpired in my efforts to protect myself from those dangers.
As you might imagine, the sight of a stranger walking up to the house each morning to open the door and shove something inside was not a welcome visit from the perspective of the dogs who lived in the homes where I delivered newspapers.
One house required me to enter the screened in front porch to place the newspaper against the inside door, which happened to have a flap in it so that the household dog, a German Shepard named Trigger, could always get out for some fresh air and bark at the world if he wanted to do so.
Trigger was smart enough to know it was me each morning delivering the newspaper. But he was not so smart that he knew enough to lie in wait for the moment when I’d entered the front porch with newspaper in hand. He’d have easily gotten me with that tactic. Who knows what might have happened then?
As it st00d, it was frightening enough to quietly grip that door handle and prepare to open the aluminum front porch door, which squeaked, then take a quick step inside to whip the newspaper around the door and pull it back shut before Trigger came bawling through the doggie door with teeth bared, barking like he wanted to rip out my soul with his dangerous doggie teeth. You could hear his toenails coming at you / on the linoleum floor in sort of a doggie Doppler effect, so you know how close he was coming and how quick you needed to act before he got out the door and made you pay for entering his domain.
He never got me, that Trigger. There were mornings when it was close, when his paws would scratch wildly against the aluminum pane at the bottom of the porch door, sending a shiver like fingers on a blackboard on steroids.
There were other dogs as well. Big, bellowing hounds. Stupid yappie dachsunds and these two mutts with no voice. They would bark and bark and nothing would come out. They’d stand like ghost dogs in the yard, making like this “—-” “—- ——“. Nothing. No barks. Weird.
The evil dog
Then there was the evil black and blind dog that lived just a block from my house. It was the last home on my paper route and most days it was a simple ride up the driveway where I’d circle on the basketball court and toss the newspaper against the door before riding home.
But one day as I was circling the drive a menacing black shaped came charging around the house and ran straight at my bike. He gripped my ankle in his jaws and shook. I tugged with fearful rage and clambered back onto the bike, having nearly fallen off from the attack. The dog stood there growling in the driveway, looking off into the distance in the way that old, angry dogs do when they are half afraid and half wild out of their minds over the thought of an intruder on their property.
The next day it happened again. And the next. I tried dumping my bike at the end of the drive and running up to throw the paper because it afforded me more agility. I was always quick on my feet, trained as a basketball and soccer player who loved ballistic sports. But this was different. The minute you rounded the house the dog had an incredible advantage and was smart enough to cut you off even though it was clear he could not see for shit.
The third day I tried the running technique the dog happened to be right beside the house where the door was ajar. It was obvious someone let him out to do his business every morning and never paid attention to the ugly encounters the dog was fond of initiating. That morning the dog got hold of my ankle and bit down hard.
Red in tooth and claw
It was late September, peak training season for cross country and I was having the season of my life, leading the team in points and ultimately to a conference championship. But at the moment that dog gripped my ankle the entire season and all that training flashed before my eyes. I shook my leg but the dog would not let go. I could feel his teeth through my jeans, chomping on the ankle bone. I raged and yelled at the dog, and even yelled at the owners in the house to come get their animal. But no one listened, and the dog only let go when I pulled myself far enough down the driveway that some strange instinct kicked in and he unhitched himself from my leg.
I described this scene to my father over breakfast. “Dad, he’s been biting me every day for the last week. I’m afraid he’s going to take me out of cross country.”
My father stood up and walked out of the room, returning with a can of starting ether he often used to kick our old Buick Wildcat (’67) into gear on cold mornings. “Here,” he instructed me. “Give him a shot of this if he comes after you tomorrow.”
I trusted my father. He grew up on a farm with lots of animals. I once saw him take down a bothersome groundhog that had dug a burrow under the outbuilding at our New York home. He had us all join him in the upstairs attic while we waited for the groundhog to emerge. Finally the creature crawled out from his dirt burrow and my dad wasted no time in pulling the trigger. “Crack!” went the rifle. Down went the groundhog. “Wow!” we exclaimed. “You’re a good shot!”
He was. He’d nailed the critter from at least 35 yards away. Perhaps 50. My little brain did not know distances that well.
Armed and ready
So the next morning I carried the spray can of starting ether with me on the paper route. Approaching the last house with the mad blind dog a surge of nervous energy took over my consciousness. I grasped the paper in one hand and the spray can in the other and started running up the drive. As fate would have it, the dog circled round behind me and I could not stop. I was trapped on a driveway with fencing all the way around. The dog growled and charged, grabbing my right ankle in his jaws. The animal could obviously see well enough to aim his bite, and this one hurt. All the other times he had gnawed on me did not hurt like this.
But this time I was armed with the spray ether. I bent down and gave him a short shot of the acrid stuff. The smell reminded me of getting my tonsils out when I was 5 years old. The hospital put that ether mask over my head and I was out like a light. But the feel of that ether in your nose never quite leaves you, and firing it into the fresh fall air was a profound shot of unreality. The dog shook, sputtered a little and then clamped own even harder on my ankle, getting the bones between his teeth where he could do some real damage.
Closing the deal
That sent a real shock of fear through me. I bent closer and aimed the either straight up his nose and pushed the button with all my might. A straight show bounced off his nose and a foam started forming where it hit. The dog gave four sharp shakes and let go, trotting back to the house sneezing and huffing.
“Take that!” I said in a whimpering voice. I was scared and angry all at once.
It was only 150 yards back home from the dog’s house and I rode my Huffy 3-speed in a low gear uphill, pressing down hard on each stroke to make it home. My arms were shaking and my ankle hurt. In two days there was an important meet to run and I was genuinely worried that my ankle would hurt so bad it would be impossible to compete. I felt justified protecting myself from that dog.
Business as usual
I parked the bike and got ready for school. Neither my father or mother remembered to ask me about the dog that morning, or whether the spray ether had worked.
At cross country practice I limped the first mile or two and the coach asked me what was up. I told him I’d hit my ankle on the bike chain that morning and he responded, “Be careful. You know who we race tomorrow!”
That night I ate alone because my parents were off with my brothers at school events. The next morning I got up as usual at 5:30 to do the paper route and carried the spray ether with me again just in case the dog would attack.
Scene of the crime
Riding the 3 miles of the paper route felt weird. Everything was so quiet. Even Trigger barely came to the door that morning. I was both relieved and in shock at that. There was only a few more houses to go…
Pulling into that last driveway I noticed that the yard seemed extra quiet. I stepped off the Huffy bike and set it down quietly on the grass. At first I was prepared to run up the driveway but something in me wanted to walk slowly instead. I put the paper down by the door and the dog was nowhere to be seen or heard. No growling. No charge. I glanced around the yard, and to my horror saw a black shape (like a tarsnake on the highway) slumped by the woodpile beyond the fence. The dog was dead.
Running away from blame
In a panic, I glanced at the house but no one came out to chide or scold me. Not knowing what else to do, and not wanting to create more trouble or honestly take the blame for the death of the dog, I simply got back on the Huffy and rode back home.
Nothing was said at Smitty’s Bar-B-Que the next morning when I rode down to pick up the papers for delivery. Smitty shoved my regular perk, a chocolate covered donut and a Cherry Coke in front of me and I downed them quickly before riding out into the chill October air.
Sounds of silence
In fact nothing was ever said by anyone about the death of the dog. My father never asked. I guess he assumed the ether had chased the dog away. That was good enough for me. The people who owned the dog never said a word either. Perhaps they did not know how he died. Just found him by the woodshed and disposed of the body somehow. No doubt someone like Cesar Millan the Dog Whisperer could have helped the poor animal work out its fears and issues, but mostly he would have likely chided its owners for their neglect.
I was a dog murderer, I knew. It dragged on my conscience for a while, but not really. I won the big meet, my first outright individual victory for the team all year. Our top guy had hurt something in his back that took him out of action for a week and I realized it was my time to step up and lead.
To this day I do not regret my defense against the dog. Perhaps I even did him a favor since the owners did not seem to care about him. The ether had sent him to doggie heaven, or doggie hell, wherever mean dogs go. But they can’t be blamed entirely for their actions. If their god is a dog, perhaps there is different breed of dog justice in their god. As a dog owner now I realize how important it is for the owners to be responsible for the actions of their pet. Their lives are literally held in your hands.
As for me, I learned that some things actually are better left unsaid. Especially when there are miles to go. You do what you have to do sometimes, to keep running and riding through life.