The Summer We Forgot the Poodle

June 26, 2019 Updated: June 26, 2019

Vacations are a great opportunity for families to grow closer. In the case of travel by car, it’s a chance for brothers and sisters to be packed three to a back seat, setting off skirmishes over borders patrolled as watchfully as the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea. One careless moment of slouching inattention and a warning shot in the form of “Get off my side!” can be expected as a cease and desist order that, if ignored, will escalate into open warfare.

With Mom and Dad up front, a V-8 engine under the hood, and the trunk full of luggage, you might think the prototypical family car of the pre-psychedelic ’60s would be stuffed to capacity, and there’d be no room for the family dog.

You’d be wrong. I know from personal experience.

One summer in the early 1960s, my family made the ill-advised decision to drive from central Missouri to Atlanta, Georgia, on our summer vacation to visit my maternal grandparents. We’d just gotten a toy poodle named—of all things—“Poodie.” He didn’t seem to mind the lack of creativity that went into his christening; our two cats were named “Big Kitty” and “Baby Cat,” like minor animal characters in a Tennessee Williams play, so it wasn’t as if he’d been singled out.

Cats can be left behind with someone to check on them every few days. Poodles, by contrast, have high-strung French temperaments. When they look up at you with those weepy eyes, wag their tails, and whine when you call the automobile club to get your map of the southeastern United States, there’s no way you can send them to a kennel where the other dogs would make fun of their accents.

And so Poodie was installed on the rear window deck of our Oldsmobile, from which he could see the United States as it receded from view.

Like most French poodles, Poodie was highly intelligent. We had trained him to sit up and catch a ball in his mouth, fetch, and—his tour de force—lie down and roll over on command. He was the marvel of our neighborhood, even in dog-worshipping central Missouri, where Jim the Wonder Dog was famous for predicting presidential elections and Kentucky Derby winners, and where a lawyer named George Graham Vest gave an impassioned speech seeking damages for a man whose dog, “Old Drum,” had been shot by a neighbor. His stirring claim that “[the] one absolute, unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world—the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous—is his dog” has been smoothed over by time, like a rock in a stream, to the familiar phrase, “A man’s best friend is his dog.”

Poodie was our best friend, but kids are kids. Examples of children who promise to walk a dog if a parent will let them have one, then fail or neglect to do so, are so numerous as to be a commonplace.

And so we three kids took turns minding Poodie at each stop along the way while he did what dogs do on their walks—sniff bushes, relieve themselves—but it was an irksome task when you’d rather be inside a gift shop hunting for souvenirs to remind you of summer vacation in the dead of the coming winter back home.

At one such stop on the return trip—when the concept of a traveling cross-country with a dog had long ceased to be a novelty—the canine fly ball dropped between the fielders, so to speak. One child relieved another who wanted to buy some taffy, then the third took her turn. Dogs do wander off to pursue their own interests, and—in the changing of the guards—somehow someone lost track of Poodie.

When we got back into the car, we were so high on sugar that it wasn’t until we were several hundred yards down the road that one of us noticed there wasn’t a dog up behind us in the back.

“Where’s Poodie?” someone asked.

The floor was searched, front seat and rear. Then I looked out the window and saw Poodie, his pink tongue hanging out from the exertion, running after us.

Dad slammed on the brakes when we screamed, and Mom got out on a lonesome stretch of highway to retrieve the family pet.

We were all properly remorseful when we were reunited, as we should have been, but Poodie didn’t seem to care. Proof, if you needed it, that not only are dogs better friends than humans, they’re quicker to forgive.

Con Chapman is a Boston writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. His biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s alto saxophonist, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.