Hildy and Bismarck
The breeder, whose name was Annelie Jensen, was helping the dog’s owner find a new home for her. Annelie, who subsequently became a friend, arranged to have me meet the dog at our home in San Francisco, and, since Ed was not yet home from work, to leave her with us for a few days while we decided. Registered as Athene of Aliehof, the dog had the same fawn coloring as Dagmar and seemed very sweet. I have forgotten why the owner could not keep her; in fact, all we remember about her earlier life is that the owners had a boat, a cabin cruiser, and that the dog had learned to climb the ladder-type steps to get on board. Well, that was a skill she would not be using if she came to live with us.
Our daughter and I were bonding with the dog when Ed arrived home. The dog took one look at him and jumped over a chair, knocking over and breaking a table lamp in her effort to get as far away from him as she could. We tried to calm her down, and Ed spent the rest of the evening trying to win her over. “Maybe you should just ignore her for a while,” I said. He did, but any time he made the slightest move, she’d skitter away from him. “Well, this won’t do,” he said. “We can’t have a dog that’s terrified of me.” “She’s fine with me,” I said. “Let’s give it more time.”
Annelie called the next day to ask how things were going, and I related the problem we were having. “You know, I have another dog I’ve taken back,” she said. “Perhaps he would be a better fit for you.” We made a date for the next weekend to go to her place in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. By then, the temporary dog had begun to warm up to Ed, so we left her at home when we went to look at this new one. Do I even need to tell you what happened? We liked that dog and couldn’t bear to reject the first one, so suddenly we were the owners of two giant dogs.
The male dog was named Bismarck of Aliehof. We liked the name Bismarck and planned to keep it. But we didn’t care for the name the previous owner had been calling the female so we decided we would call her Hildy.
Bismarck’s story was more fraught. He’d been sold originally to a young couple whose marriage broke up soon after. While things were being sorted out between the two, the dog was boarded at a veterinary clinic. He lived in a cage for eight weeks during the most crucial and rapid growth period for any dog but particularly for a Dane. (As one of our daughter’s high school friends remarked during a similar period with one of our later dogs, “These dogs grow practically overnight, don’t they?”) When Annelie learned of the situation, she rushed to the clinic to retrieve the dog, lambasted the veterinarian and took Bismarck back home with her. He was unable to walk more than a few yards before having to lie down. She had just finished nursing him back to health when she suggested him to us. In spite of his rocky start, he was a very handsome dog.
Fortunately, we had by this time traded the VW Beetle in for a small station wagon-type car, called a VW Variant. We’d ordered it from Germany as it was not yet being sold in the US (It looked like today’s Jetta.). With the back seat folded down, two dogs could fit in the car, but our daughter had to sit in the front seat or on one of our laps. (That was life in the pre-car seat, pre-seat belt days.) But our little house with its postage stamp yard was feeling pretty full – plus, we had permission for only one dog. We told the landlady we would be moving as soon as we found another place, and we began house-hunting in Marin County. Now this landlady, whom we’d never seen since the day she handed us the keys, had reasons to come by. Each time she did, we shoved one of the dogs down the stairs and out of sight. One time it was the male, one time the female, but they were identical colors and she didn’t seem to take notice.
We quickly found a house we liked – three bedrooms on a wooded hillside in San Rafael. It was brand new and almost finished; the builder had run out of funds. We borrowed money from Ed’s parents for a down payment and moved in. The first chore was fencing in the yard, as I’ve said the priority for us wherever we’ve lived. With that done, the dogs were happy to spend entire days outside. Our daughter, still walking with a limp since her broken leg ordeal, enjoyed playing in her room or on the deck while we were all at home. (By the way, that daughter whose leg was broken, grew up to become a dancer.) Weekdays she went to a sitter’s home while Ed and I were at work. We left the dogs outside while we were gone, something we’ve never done with any dog since. I don’t know what we were thinking except that we were new to all this.
In short time we learned what the dogs had been doing out there in the yard: We came home to find that Hildy had given birth to two puppies. Puppies?! That certainly was not in the plan. But we quickly got ourselves educated about what was required, and our daughter was thrilled with the newcomers. We gave ourselves a kennel name, Marindane, and registered the litter with the American Kennel Club. Fortunately, we did not have to find owners for them because the purchase agreement we had with the breeder and Hildy’s previous owner called for each of them to receive a puppy from the first litter. This was fortunate because in the midst of all this, Ed’s company decided to transfer him to New York. We’d been in our new house four and one-half months.
Of course, that house – our first home – was to our minds the most perfect house in the world. We hated to leave it. With Ed already working on the East Coast and my trying to deal with realtors and movers, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution. Ed’s New York assignment was supposed to be for just two years. What if we kept the new house and rented it out while we were gone. Wouldn’t it be great to have it to come back to? Ed liked the idea because he was as loathe to give up the new house as I was. We asked the realtor to find us a tenant, which he did in short order, nice people – a journalist actually – who owned a home in London and was doing the same thing we were. We boarded the dogs and the cat, sent the moving van on its way and flew east. Our daughter and I joined Ed in his hotel.
What we hadn’t counted on in this grand scheme was how hard it would be to find a place to rent with one child and two giant dogs. And one we could afford. Ed’s excitement at the salary increase his transfer was bringing was quickly quashed when he read in the paper the income required for a family to live in the New York area, an amount that exceeded by many thousands his new munificence. So while our daughter had a wonderful time playing Eloise at the Plaza Hotel, we frantically searched for a place to live. Because I am originally from New Jersey and had family living there, that’s where we concentrated our looking. Toward the end of a month in the hotel and wondering if Ed’s company would decide we were too expensive to move and just send us all back, we found a house to rent in Wayne. It was owned by an older woman who said she liked dogs, though I’m not sure she knew exactly how big a Great Dane is.
We alerted the kennel they could release the dogs and the cat. Special wood crates were constructed for the dogs and a carrier provided for the cat, and all three were shipped air cargo. We anxiously followed their boarding and takeoff, calculating when they were scheduled to arrive, until we were notified a huge snowstorm had caused the plane to be diverted to Chicago where it sat for six hours. Our poor animals! We waited by the phone for news of them. Finally, the call came. They would be arriving at the air cargo terminal in Newark at 2 in the morning. Ed went to meet them.
The overnight shift workers were fascinated by the cargo that came off the plane, but when Ed opened the crates and first one and then another exuberant dog burst forth, the workers shrank back against the walls. Someone quickly produced the carrier containing the cat who had a cold and was sneezing. The dogs pulled Ed out the door while over his shoulder he shouted, “I’ll be back for the crates.”
Our little family reunited at last, we all caught up on sleep until the weekend when Ed began work on a fence.
The first time our California dogs saw snow was fun. It reminded me of the girl from New Orleans in my college dorm in Missouri as soon as the first flakes began to appear. “Oh, I love it! I love it!” she shouted, holding her arms outstretched and her face turned to the sky to catch the snowflakes on her tongue. The dogs would have done the same if they’d been able. They jumped and cavorted in the snow and grabbed big mouthsful with their teeth. And then they got cold and wanted to come inside.
The dog crates, which Ed had retrieved from the airport, went into the basement and eventually the wood was put to other uses, including a whelping box for the next litter of puppies Hildy and Bismarck produced. Oh no, not again! In all, there were four litters counting the surprise one in California. Once we boarded Bismarck with the vet during the crucial time when Hildy would be fertile, but we miscalculated and he returned home to assure his paternity once again. Another time, someone who bred Shelties told me, “I set the female up all cozy in one room with the door closed. Don’t you have a place where you could do that rather than paying boarding fees?” Well, maybe I could do that, I thought. We arranged a place in the basement with her bed and food and water. Bismarck had the rest of the house to himself. And what did he do? He paced and whined and walked around with his tongue hanging out of his mouth. “Doesn’t that make you ashamed for your gender?” I said to Ed. I think we miscalculated again that time for Litter Number Four. And then we had Hildy spayed.
Our accidental dog breeding endeavor was never going to make us rich. While Bismarck came from a litter of thirteen, Hildy never produced more than three, and one time just one puppy. Once they were weaned, we assured they were well fed and cared for, and we made certain they received all the requisite medical procedures up until the time we turned them over to their owners. And then we paid off the vet bill and called it even.
Hildy and Bismarck settled into a comfortable lifestyle in our rented house. One time when I was expecting our second child, I decided to take both dogs with my daughter to pay a visit to my grandmother in a nearby town. The route included maneuvering through an enormous road construction project. On the way back home, as I steered the car around a curve, one of the dogs slid against the locked back door which flew open, and both dogs fell out onto the highway. Multiple lanes of cars came screeching to a halt as the frightened dogs chased back and forth across the highway. My daughter was wailing, “They’re going to get killed!” as I pulled the car over to the side. A man got out of his car. “Do you want my help?” he asked. “Yes…no…thanks anyway,” I said, fearful of what the panicked animals might do if he tried to catch them. Bismarck, especially, hated being grabbed by the collar. I was screaming their names and finally Hildy came over to me. “Go get Bismarck,” I said, and darned if she didn’t do it. She ran across several lanes again, around behind him and herded him over to me. I got both dogs back into the car, locked the back door and calmed my daughter down. All across the many lanes, cars started up their motors and resumed their commutes home. Once I calmed myself down, I laughed to think of the stories those drivers would tell when they got home. “Honey,” they’d say, “there was this very pregnant woman and a screaming child and two giant dogs…” Because in those days pregnant women didn’t concern themselves about such things, I went home and had a stiff drink. And the next week I went to the Volkswagen dealer and delivered a diatribe about a faulty latch that was supposed to have been fixed and wasn’t.
After our second daughter was born, dog-walking responsibilities once again fell largely to Ed. One winter night he took both out together for a last walk before bed. The leashes were wrapped around his hand so when they spotted a dog and took off after it, Ed was pulled off his feet and onto the hilly street where he slid on the ice behind them to the bottom. The way he described it made me think of cowboy movies where the hero was dragged behind a team of runaway horses. I’m not sure what finally caused them to stop but I believe some very angry and very salty language was involved. When the three of them walked in the door, Ed bloodied and his jacket in shreds, both dogs made themselves scarce for the rest of the night. Ed ended up with a broken rib and a new jacket.
One of my personal phobias is birds. I don’t know why but while I love watching them out the window or at a bird feeder, up close with their wings fluttering terrifies me. (No, I never saw the Hitchcock movie, “The Birds.” The omission was intentional.) So when the cat brought a live bird into the house one morning when I was alone with the baby and the dogs, I stayed long enough to see the creature escape from the cat’s mouth and hop behind the stove. Then I grabbed the baby and left, walking down the street to a neighbor’s house. There, I used the phone to call animal control and waited till I saw the truck in front of my house. The officer arrived with a cage big enough to hold an eagle. He moved the stove away from the wall and lifted a tiny sparrow-sized bird, now dead, up and into the cage. He looked at me and shook his head. “Lady,” he said, indicating the two dogs watching him intently. “You live with these and you’re afraid of this?” I shrugged. Each to his own phobia.
Ed’s promised two year stint on the East Coast expanded into, eventually, more than six years. The perfect tenants in our house in California returned to their own home in London and we had new tenants. They were not perfect. When their checks bounced, so did ours. Back in San Francisco on business, Ed stopped at the house and was alarmed at its deterioration. We asked the realtor to put it on the market and began looking for a house to buy in New Jersey. And then poor Hildy developed bone cancer in her legs. “She could experience instant fractures,” the vet said. “Aren’t all fractures instant?” one friend asked. I suppose so, but the prospect of retrieving 130 pounds of dog from the bottom of a flight of stairs helped convince us that the humane thing to do before we got to that point was euthanasia. So once again we said goodbye to a sweet friend much too soon. She was seven years old.
We found a big old wreck of a house to buy in Montclair and moved in with two daughters, one Great Dane and a cat. Before the fence was installed, Bismarck one day ran out the front door and up the street for a romp. Ed ran after, calling the dog’s name. A young woman emerged from her house just as the dog was passing by. She reached out and grabbed Bismarck’s collar and held on. Ed, knowing the dog’s feelings about this kind of action, was horrified but this time, miraculously, Bismarck stood still and allowed the woman to hold him until Ed caught up. “That’s the biggest dog I’ve ever done that to,” she said as Ed thanked her and introductions were exchanged. “I did it without thinking. Not very smart of me.” Ed refrained from telling her then about Bismarck’s usual proclivity in that regard, although I know we told her later on when she became the lifelong friend she continues to be today.
We told the next door neighbors we planned to put up a fence. “What kind of a fence?” the husband asked, dubiously. We assured him it would be an attractive wood fence along the edge of his driveway, no more than four feet high (Great Danes are not jumpers). Once it was installed, Bismarck would stand on his hind legs, his front paws on the top of the fence and greet the neighbor as he headed for his garage in the morning. “Good morning, Bismarck!” the neighbor would call. “Woof,” replied Bismarck. Those people also became lifelong friends.
As mentioned, Bismarck didn’t like anyone to grab his collar unexpectedly. We’d already seen that at the last place when Bismarck got loose and a young teenage boy on the street caught the dog by the collar. Bismarck turned his head and bit him on the arm. The bite was minimal, and the boy’s mother, a nurse, was very relaxed about it. I was horrified, not least because the boy’s father was a lawyer. Was a lawsuit in our future? I delivered apologies and a big box of candy, and the family was forgiving. Now, in the new house, the babysitter tried to pull Bismarck off one daughter’s bed and again the dog struck and again, the bite was not severe. And again, the girl was the daughter of a lawyer. The next day I delivered a note and a box of candy but was aghast later in the day, visiting a friend in the hospital, to see the babysitter there. I rushed up to her. “Why are you here?” I asked. “Is it the bite?” She laughed. “I volunteer here as a Candy-striper. My arm is fine.” Many years later another dog, Elsa, bit the high school majorette and yes, her father was a lawyer too. But that’s another story. Suffice it to say, our dogs only bite lawyers’ children; if you don’t have a law degree, your children are safe.
Except for this predilection of his, Bismarck was a wonderful dog, and when Ed was transferred back to California – after just a year and a half in this latest house – he came with us back to his place of birth. This time we bought a house with a very large lot, and yes, Ed (with my brother’s help) fenced it in as well. This house was in an unincorporated part of Marin County but the address was San Rafael. Our house was at the top of a hill – what is it with us and hills? – and accessible by way of a long steep driveway. Daily walks were no longer part of Bismarck’s routine, but he did have a big sunny yard to move around in and a deck to sun himself on. At age eight, that seemed sufficient to him. The people in the house below us had a horse that mostly stood in the corral and a goat that we borrowed once to consume the tall grass outside the fence that would otherwise constitute a fire hazard. Deer would come and stand on their side of the fence and stare at our look-alike dog. “Are you one of us?” But then he’d bark and off they’d bound. “Nope, definitely not one of us.”
There are people whose dogs have reliably short life spans who devise ways to deal with the heartache. One way is to bring in a young dog to help ease the owners’ pain when the inevitable happens. There are two schools of thought on this and I have held both schools at one time or another. One is that the young dog gives the older one a new lease on life, a re-invigoration. The other is that it’s a lousy thing to do to an old dog who deserves a peaceful old age. As I’ve said, we’ve been of both minds and have tried both. This particular time we decided Bismarck could use a companion, so we began watching the ads and soon found a litter available.