Dusky's short residence with us and his rather hasty exit left my life dog-less once again.
But over the next few years, my love for dogs deepened, particularly in relation to the Labrador Retriever.
Until one entered my extended life, I'm not even sure I knew what a Labrador Retriever was.
I do remember vying for an Old English Sheepdog, in conjunction with a contest tied to the release of Walt Disney Picture's The Shaggy D.A. (1976). Our local newspaper was giving away an OES (a practice I now recognize as being fraught with potential problems, but hey, times were different back then) at random, chosen from entry forms that were completed and mailed.
I must have scrawled my name and address on dozens of those entry forms. Ah, to no avail. I didn't win.
But shortly thereafter, I did connect deeply with a dog, a Labrador Retriever named Kenya.
Kenya belonged to Joe, my then-best friend in grammar school.
And as with Dusky, some of these canine details are sketchy, but here is how I remember them: Joe's older brother Jeff was in the Peace Corps and was assigned to a humanitarian effort in Africa. In the village in which Jeff worked--perhaps left by some other American?--was a black Lab. Thinking that Joe would appreciate the dog, Jeff had him shipped to the States and delivered to his younger sibling.
The dog's name was Kenya. And he and Joe became inseparable. And considering how close Joe and I were, it was natural that we became The Three Musketeers, spending hours together and bonding very closely, two kids and a dog. To hell with the Sheepdogs; we could have sparked our own Disney movie.
When we played, Kenya played. When we ran pell-mell through the neighborhood, Kenya ran. When we collapsed under a shade tree to escape the summer heat, Kenya rested as well. When we flew down the steep inclines of a nearby sledding hill, Ken was right there with us, ready to snatch a wool cap or errant mitten and beg to be chased.
Each Sunday, we would go to a nearby state park and explore the trails for hours on end. Arriving home, we'd be exhausted and filthy and end the afternoon by giving Ken a bath.
Ken was a tried-and-true Lab, meaning he loved the water. I remember more than once having to retrieve him from a neighbor's koi pond, when Ken would break free from the leash and plop himself down among the expensive fish, resulting in an irate call to Joe's parents to complain.
Ken had an aversion to really one one thing, as I recall: Frisbees. One afternoon when we were playing with him in the backyard, one of us tossed a Frisbee his way, and he scrambled after it. But it dropped sharply and unexpectedly and caught Kenya right on the bridge of his nose. He yelped painfully and slunk away, and from that day onward, all Frisbees were evil and to be avoided at all costs.
Joe's father worked as a Fiberglas representative (I think) and was closely tied to the marine industry. So he maintained a second residence at the Jersey Shore, where the recreational boat trade was brisk. Joe and Kenya therefore lived by the beach for the bulk of the summer months. I would be permitted to visit from time to time, and the Musketeers were reunited for surf-and-sand adventures.
Kenya was a natural swimmer and loved the rolling tides. He was also an attentive lifeguard, and I well remember him "retrieving" us if he thought we had ventured too far from the shoreline. He would gently grab a forearm and swim us powerfully back to the shallow water.
I also remember a Saturday morning at the Shore when we made an overabundance of pancakes for breakfast and fed the extras to Kenya, who, being a Lab, was happy to gobble them up. All went well until his stomach lurched audibly and he opened his mouth in a wide yawn. From the depths of his gut came a rolling ball of undigested pancakes, looking much like the boulder that would later chase Indiana Jones in the movies. Kenya was fine afterward, but we were saddled with the cleanup.
Kenya was the dog that caused me to fall in love with the Labrador Retriever. Even at that young age, I quickly came to appreciate how smart they were, how gregarious, how unflappable, how reliable, how even-tempered. I loved their expressiveness, their loyalty, their sociability, their patience, and their demeanor. They were comfortable romping around and playing hard. And also finding a patch of sunshine to nestle in and nap. They were low-maintenance, owing to a coat that didn't require primping and fussing, and smart.
Kenya made up my mind: I would not only someday own a dog. I would someday own a black Labrador Retriever.
Joe and I unfortunately drifted apart in high school. I lost touch with him altogether in the ensuing years. And by proxy, Kenya faded from my life as well, much to my regret.
I do remember this: Ken would "smile" when he greeted me; he had this odd way of coming at me, lowering his head, and curling back his upper lip, exposing his teeth while his back-end was busy with a full-body wag.
It was one of his most distinguished traits and yet one more thing that I loved about him.
Many many years later, my brother and I were driving through the same Shore town that Joe, Ken, and I used to romp. And just by chance, I was looking out the passenger window and spied a young man, about my age, walking a very gray, very old, dog.
I did a double-take. A triple-take. Could it be? Was it possible?
It was. I directed my brother to stop--NOW!--and got out and approached.
And the dog lowered his head, curled back his lip, smiled broadly, and came at me with a familiar wag. It was definitely subdued, owing to his age, but it was unmistakable.
I regret that among all the memorabilia from that period in my life (heck, I've still got my Boy Scouts of America membership card from May 1972), I don't have one picture of Kenya.
I do, however, still have this picture of Joe and me. Just imagine a blocky black head with caramel-colored eyes positioned between us.
The Three Musketeers.