The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

September 3, 2012

ARLENE JOHNS | The long walk home


The Tribune-Democrat

— These days at the Johns’ house, one subject is rarely brought up.

Oscar, the faithful beagle, won’t be with us much longer.

We both know that, but it’s not to be discussed.

We really didn’t want him in the first place, of course.

Both kind of picky about a perfect house and yard, we didn’t think a dog would fit into the picture. But when Chad, our Navy son, asked if we’d take care of him while he served in the Persian Gulf, we felt we had little choice.

Besides feeling it was our duty to the country, we felt sorry for the poor hound who had been abused by a former owner.

So we welcomed Oscar into our home – sort of.

It was rough for awhile.

He peed on the grass and killed it. He dragged roadkill to the front door. And every time he got a bath he went directly to the nearest dead animal and rolled on the carcass.

But after six years, we’ve grown accustomed to each other.

For the past several weeks, Oscar has enjoyed the company of Chad’s current dog,

Yankee. (This time our Navy son is headed to the North Pole on a Coast Guard icebreaker.)

Yankee, a black Lab, is a whole different character.

While Oscar is content to lay on a rock in the sun, Yankee wants to play.

So, in the evenings, Joe and I take him on long walks in the woods, trying to wear him out for the night.

On Wednesday, Oscar ventured to the front yard to watch as we left on our walk.

These days he walks only when necessary and wheezes with every step, so there was no question of him joining us.

We walked about 21/2 miles, much of it uphill, before deciding it was time to head home.

We had made good time and thought we’d get home before dark, when the rocky, steep path would be more difficult to traverse.

We’d barely started back down the path when something white caught our eye on the trail ahead.

At first it seemed it was a deer, but as we got closer and we realized what it was – Oscar.

He was panting so hard his whole body was shaking and his entire bottom side was caked in mud, but he had found us.

I don’t know if we were more shocked or horrified.

Oscar is nearly crippled, so how did he manage to follow us and nearly keep up for more than two miles?  He’s almost blind, so how did he see well enough to make his way up the steep hill? And WHY didn’t we look behind us and realize he was back there?

Mud was ignored as we patted Oscar and told him what an amazing dog he was.

But Oscar was in bad shape and could barely move. He lay in the grass at the side of the road, struggling to find some cool grass. We sat by his side, barely talking for fear we’d start crying.

Eventually we realized we had to try to get home. We talked about making a sling out of sticks and Joe’s T-shirt, but carrying a 45-pound dog who would not want carried wasn’t a good option.

So we headed off. We’d take about 10 slow steps and wait for Oscar to catch up. Then

10 more. We stopped for long breaks at each puddle we passed so Oscar could lay in the muddy water.

 Eventually I told Joe we had to get home or we’d break our necks climbing down the hill in the dark. But my tougher-than-tough husband wasn’t interested.

“Leave no man behind,” he said, his voice breaking.

Joe’s a hunter and used to being in the woods in the dark, but I am not, so I reluctantly left for home with Yankee.

We arrived just before dark, but Joe and Oscar were another hour.

I heard him talking to the old dog as they slowly made their way up the driveway.

“You’re pretty tired, aren’t ya, Buddy?”

Arlene Johns is The Tribune-Democrat’s city editor.

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