It’s difficult to separate my actual memories from my memories of old photographs. It’s why people take pictures in the first place.
Many of the images of my early childhood are captured on slides rather than prints, and the slides are in carousels at my parents’ house, packed away in closets, unseen in 30 or more years.
Whether I am remembering my childhood or the photos is hard to know, but one of the strongest impressions I have from those years is of our dog, Tippi.
My dad worked nights as a mechanic for American Airlines, first at Love Field in Dallas and then at the new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. In the 1970s, new neighborhoods were springing up across the Metroplex, and such was the case with ours in the suburb of Bedford, just a few minutes from the airport. Our house was the first one built on our street.
These circumstances led my parents to get a dog, a reliable guardian to keep my mom safe at night while Dad was at work, and a companion during the day in an isolated community that did not yet offer neighbors. My parents settled on a young but well-trained female German Shepherd. She was named in German, “Schwarz Spitze,” or “black tip,” because, obviously, the tip of her tail was black. My parents called her by the shortened nickname, “Tippi.”
As a toddler I struggled to say words that began with the letter “T.” In my language, “Tippi” was “Pippi.” My dad tried repeatedly to train me to say it correctly. He worked it into a list of other “T” words to trick my brain and tongue to suddenly cooperate.
“Say ‘tea,’ ‘toy,’ ‘top,’ ‘Tippi.”
I would respond with “’Tea!’ ‘Toy!’ ‘Top!’ ‘Pippi!”
The way he reacted with exasperation and laughter probably made me think it was a fun game. That and my genetic predisposition toward stubbornness kept me saying “Pippi” long after it was cute.
I remember watching “Sesame Street” while laying on our black couch, coffee table or red-tiled floor, always with a hand on Tippi. My protector, Tippi would sit obediently by my side or at my feet. And as I grew, Tippi remained attentive and fiercely loyal, (emphasis on the fierce). Anytime she perceived a threat to me, she growled and barked. Her protection extended to my friends who would come to the house to play. If we ever wanted to go in the backyard, we had to make sure she was in the garage or in the house.
A faint memory that has grown in impact because of its constant retelling was a time I marched along the fence in the backyard with a bucket on my head, holding Tippi by the tail and singing “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” If I had to guess, I was inspired by a scene from the World War II prisoner-of-war comedy “Hogan’s Heroes” in which armed guards patrolled the perimeter of the camp with German Shepherds. Never mind the questionable origins of the idea, my parents thought it was hilarious.
In the heat of Texas summers, Tippi loved to play with me in the water hose or the small wading pools my parents would set up for me. I clearly remember how she would try to bite the stream of water flowing from the hose like she was attacking a snake.
She retrieved balls, gnawed bones, ate crunchy dog food from a metal dog dish in the garage, and, according to family legend, once turned her nose up at a plate of beef stroganoff my mom had branched out to prepare for supper. My dad, lacking grace about his distaste for the meal, suggested the dog wouldn’t even eat it. In response, my mother jerked up his plate, opened the door to the garage and set it down in front of Tippi. She sniffed the plate, turned around and promptly went into the backyard.
I also have clear memories of the tumors Tippi began to develop when I was eight or nine. When I petted her, I was careful to avoid the painful lumps that had formed on her body, particularly the back of her neck. I observed her grow more and more listless, less active, displaying less of an appetite, and emitting the high pitched whine more frequently when there was no apparent prompting.
Finally, my parents had seen enough of her suffering, and one day while I was at school, they took her to the vet “to be put to sleep,” as they called it. Tippi left our lives that day, but she has never left my memory.
So strong was our bond that even though we had other dogs after we moved to Florida, I never allowed myself to feel attached. I knew no dog could ever be as good and smart and loyal as Tippi. I’m sure she frustrated my parents at times in the way our family dogs have frustrated me in my household, but as the kid with the dog, I have nothing but the best memories of my Pippi dog.