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November 8, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Why Charlie Powell didn't own a dog for more than 30 years

powell1961Moe and Poochie.jpgCharlie Powell is pictured with his beloved dog named Poochie in 1961. After Poochie's death, Powell, who is the senior public-information officer for Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman, didn't own a dog for more than 30 years. Photo courtesy of Charlie Powell.

By Charlie Powell

I can't recall a day when there wasn't a "Poochie," until he was gone.

My earliest memories of the little Boston terrier were just that, my earliest memories. He and I grew up together beginning first in Oregon where I was born, then Illinois, and finally Las Vegas.

My mother often said she thought I would pet his head bald with my right hand while sucking a bottle held in my left. She also said Poochie had no problem with that.

Being an Air Force family, when we moved, Poochie moved. He was equally at home on the floor of a car or jumping several feet off the ground to pop balloons tied to a clothes line. He loved to swim, fetch anything and laughingly protect our family as if his 20 pounds were 200. He was fearless to a fault.

As I grew up perhaps I didn't notice -- or perhaps I didn't want to know -- that the shadow of age was passing over him. By the time we moved to Las Vegas, Poochie was what we term today, a geriatric dog.

With his breed's characteristic smushed-in face, the heat was hard on him. He'd seek the coolest spot on the concrete floor and stretch out for a snooze.

Poochie was not doing well, and there came that fateful day when an owner knows.

In this case, Poochie stopped meeting me or anyone at the door. If you went to find him, he wouldn't raise his head. If you carried him to another room, he would stiffly get up and make his way painfully to his one preferred spot.

His character and spirit had left an old and infirmed body behind.

I held him and cried as we drove him to the veterinarian in the yellow 1955 Ford pickup. It would be the same truck I would drive all through college, into graduate school, as a medical paraprofessional, and I used to take my wife to deliver our first child.

Despite the little dog's pain, he still let me pet his head. I last saw Poochie as we handed him off to a white-smocked gentleman who promised my dad to, "take care of 'it' for you." That word "it" bothered me.

A day later, dad said, "Let's go pick Poochie up and we will bury him at his favorite spot near Lake Mead."

In the bed of the truck was a wooden M30 mortar shell ammo box discarded by the military along with thousands just like it at the close of the Southeast Asia war. It was a fitting coffin for the little tough guy.

We literally had to pick his body up. The receptionist took us to the back door and pointed to a taped-up bundle on the floor and said, "That's him. Please take him out the back; not through the waiting area."

He was frozen stiff and wrapped in masking tape up to his neck.

When we laid him in the box, he didn't fit. Dad pushed the lid harder, and, with the sound of breaking carrots, he closed the hasp with wire, and we drove to the lake.

We rumbled down one of the many dirt roads leading to one of several hundred coves between Gypsum Wash and Colville Bay. We had fished there many times, and Poochie was with us when we did, usually in the shade of a mesquite tree. Near one of the largest trees and in the shade, dad took a shovel to the sandy ground, and in a few minutes, the hole was ready.

The 10 year-old wasn't.

I remember being overwhelmed with confusion because I was raised a Catholic, and the nuns in Catechism said only people had souls so, "no you won't ever see your dog again." I cried and I put a little crude cross made of sticks where his head would be, just in case.

A couple of weeks later, dad said we'd go fishing, "Where we buried Poochie." Actually, that sounded OK, and I was looking forward to seeing the site again.

Same truck, same road, same dust. When the old brakes squeaked to a stop, I bounded out and over a small rise to where we buried Poochie.

At the top I froze.

There was trash around his grave where people had partied. There was a blackened fire ring where we buried him with the burned hinges and the hasp laying there. When I looked up, I saw his partially charred body hung by the neck from a limb with the wire we used to close the box. Some of the masking tape was still on him so the birds and insects were struggling for a meal. The box had been used to build the fire beneath him.

I honestly can't remember what happened next, and I do not remember the ride home.
I'm sure my dad tried to console me, but I do recall feeling numb, lifeless and yet my eyes were dry.

The loss to a 10 year-old was certainly very hard, but because it was my first real experience with grief I couldn't have told you "how" hard it was.

In fact, I didn't know the word "grief" at the time. For me, the memory of what happened was more like a featureless wall that one is unable to scale. I think I coped with this mainly by becoming ambivalent to dogs -- all dogs.

Over time my parents got a couple other dogs, but I was never close to any of them. I just never wanted to be that close to a dog again.

College's hustle and flow made not having a dog easy. Life afterward was busy and loaded with responsibilities. Thinking about opening myself up again was hard.

Fast forward to a then-46-year-old guy with two great daughters, married to a nurse, working hard and not thinking about dogs. I'd never told anyone about Poochie; not even my wife. Throughout it all, I kept Poochie's collar in the old truck and a couple of photos.

One day my wife, whose family never owned a dog, went to a dog show on a lark. There she saw Boston terriers competing and liked the "little guys that look like they were wearing tuxedos."

I feigned interest on the outside and panicked on the inside. My God, what if she gets one? Why Boston's? We already had a cat, and I tried to push the conversation that way.

She kept bringing it up as I continued working, ironically, for Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association.

Near one of my planned trips to Seattle, she told me I had to stop by a breeder's home and pick up a little brindle, male Boston named "Buster."

My mind raced. I fretted all week. How could I get another dog? What if his fate turned out to be worse than Poochie's? Did my wife expect me to "replace" Poochie? Of course that was unfair to her; she knew nothing of Poochie. So I decided I needed to keep the wall up for the time being.

I kept telling myself that just like my parent's dogs, I didn't have to have anything to do with this one; he would be Connie's, not mine.

Buster2.JPGBuster, right, poses with a treat on his nose in a photo for a postcard urging donors to WSU's College of Veterinary Medicine to, "Throw us a bone." Photo by Henry Moore Jr. / BCU/WSU

No bigger than my shoe, Buster climbed up in my lap and went to sleep while I paid the breeder. I put him in his crate and he whined. I took off my sweater and put it in with him and he stopped.

In Renton, longtime friend, Dr. Kim Nicholas, gave him his preflight physical and updated his vaccination record. It was the end of his day, so he followed me out back to take Buster potty. There two grown men stood in a drizzle watching this little thing nose through the grass to find exactly the right spot.

At home Connie let the girl's stay up until I got home. The bond was instant for them, and I still just kept trying to swallow a big, dry lump in my throat.

Every two hours at night for the next couple of weeks, I took Buster out to learn his business "as a favor to my wife," of course. She took him to a puppy class at my urging, because I thought it best if they started out right.

Buster blossomed into a well-mannered young man that wormed his velvety head into my heart.

Part of what I had avoided since Poochie died was eye contact with other dogs. But just try and avoid eye contact with a Boston terrier in your house, those two orbs that stick out on the corners of a cube-shaped head. It's impossible.

Like all dogs, they'll eventually get to your feet, your lap and your heart. He also made it to the truck's seat beside me whenever he could.

I took him to a Washington State Veterinary Medical Association meeting once, and he sat in the conference room next to me wearing his WSU bow tie as if he were deliberating. I exploited his cuteness in numerous WSU publications, and his image hangs still today in WSU's Student Recreation Center giving a "high-five" to one of our cardiologists.

In his long life, injury and age took its toll. On that fateful November day, I took him from his final hiding place to see a nurse friend who'd gone on to become a veterinarian. She knew and I knew. But she called him Buster, and I held him in my arms as his life calmly slipped away.

Between Poochie and Buster was a long time to stay silent and deny myself the joy of another dog. With Buster's passing, I realized that I had shortchanged myself for a long time for no good reason. The very thing I thought I was protecting myself from -- life with another dog -- turned out to be the best thing for me.

Buster was not Poochie, and I never projected that on him. Instead, I took Buster as he was; a different yet valuable companion.

buster1.jpgBuster high-fives Dr. Sunshine Lahmers, a WSU veterinary cardiologist in a photo taken to emphasize student health and wellness. Photo courtesy of WSU.

As I write this, my blind and deaf 13 year-old rescue Boston named CeCe waits for me to finish. She was almost handed to me through a fast-food drive-in window because her owners didn't want her any longer. (A second Boston I rescued, "Bogey," romps with his family in Olympia.)

On a shelf at home Poochie's collar and Buster's ashes are located less than forty years apart -- right over there -- you know, next to my well-healed heart.

Charlie Powell is the senior public-information officer for Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman and is entering his 23rd year of service. Simultaneously, he has been the public-information director for the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association for nearly 18 years.

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I can't say I'm fond of Boston Terriers, but have loved my own dogs dearly. Charlie... MORE
My two Bostons kept me sane through three hellish years of cancer treatment, and when I... MORE
What a great, great story. Heart felt and endearing. I'm a dog person and currently... MORE

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