11 Sep

Hamshank and Dad

The picture shows a very large dog, name of Hamshank, nuzzling my father, name of Barth Mapes, at Crow Lake, a lake that empties into Bob’s. What happened in the next frame that I chose not to take was that he ran into a porcupine and had to lie on the ground so that Dad and Barth, my brother, could remove all the quills from his muzzle. But this story is not so much about his encounter with the porcupine as it is about how my family finally ended up with a dog after years of wanting one.

My brother had a very adventurous life in the eighties. He hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, worked on a farm in Scotland, and had jobs on two different oil rigs. After his stint on the Scottish farm and a tour that consisted of hitchhiking around the country, he headed out to an oil rig on the North Sea. The men were very hard on him initially and he responded with silence, until he finally couldn’t take it anymore, and yelled back at them. They said they had been wondering what kind of stuff he was made of and why he didn’t complain. Thereafter, he got along fine with the men. His 6’7″ frame contributed to his new nickname, Hamshank.

When he returned home, he headed out to the S.P.C.A., acquired a black puppy with enormous paws, and named him Hamshank. The puppy was a mixture of Labrador, Weimaraner, and St. Bernard, and, as you can see from the picture, he turned out to be an enormous dog. We were a big dog family without a big dog: my father grew up with a collie, my mother grew up with a German Shepard, and, when they were first married, my parents owned a collie. Barth felt deprived because we had never been able to own a big dog when we were growing up. His allergy to dogs prevented that. Instead, we owned rabbits from Cornell and gerbils. The latter didn’t turn out so well when the mother ate most of the babies. Barth finally decided that he was no longer going to get allergy shots: he was dismissing his allergies. Now was his chance to finally own a dog!

That summer he worked a job that involved testing the percentage of butterfat in milk at all of the dairy farms in Washington County. He lived with Eleanor Foster Randle, a formerly widowed friend of my mother’s who had remarried, and her new husband and his kids and three of her children. She was known for her big heart, which I’m sure was helpful to Barth and Hamshank as they bonded at her house.

Next, Barth decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, and Hamshank proceeded with a dog’s life where for a passage of time he alternated living with my parents with living with my parents and Barth. When Barth headed for the trail, my parents took over.

Big dogs need to range widely to get rid of all their energy. I remember reading in a dog book once that Labradors need at least a square mile for their habitat. My parents’ solution was to take him to the Cornell Golf Course at dusk and let him run. Once I went with them. It was bitter cold and dark–the tops of the trees were swooshing through the air and our faces became chapped. My father detached the leash from his collar and Hamshank took off into the gloaming. We waited and waited and waited some more until he finally appeared. God knows where he had been.

They also had to help him when he ran into trouble, like the time he encountered a skunk and had to be washed down with tomato juice. My father became the one who fed him most often, but when Barth returned home from his walk through the South, Hamshank still recognized him as at least one of his masters. The person who does the feeding is usually the one whom the dog regards as his master, but Barth and Hamshank retained the strong relationship that had begun their partnership. Barth even said that he liked Hamshank better than he liked some people.

When, for a short period, Barth lived with a friend in the apartment in our house, Hamshank became bored one day and tried to eat the sofa. My mother was not happy. Barth and Dad then built a large pen for him outside, but when I came home for visits from Minneapolis he was often sleeping downstairs in our remodeled basement. You would forget he was there until he let out a fart, and believe me his farts would fill the whole room. Outdoors, if he was not locked up in his pen or under Barth’s or my parents’ surveillance, he would raise heck in the neighborhood. He was the alpha dog and he enjoyed bedeviling the cocker spaniel several houses down. The only reason the neighbor didn’t report Barth was because they had befriended each other years before.

My favorite memories of Hamshank include him swimming across the water at Bob’s Lake. He had the webbing on his paws from his Labrador lineage and he was remarkable at plowing through lake water. We were always afraid he would go too far and wear himself out. How he got out there without us noticing remains a mystery. My mother often worried that he would be run over by a motor boat. Once we looked out the window just after breakfast only to see that Hamshank was 2/3 of the way across to the opposite shore. Just that big head sticking out of the water. Still in our pajamas, my mother and I stepped into the boat and took off after him. He would also go running into the Long Bay Camp next to us and then circle back, when he had finally gone far enough to wear himself out.

Hamshank maintained his identity as an escape artist until the end. One day he discovered that the gate to his pen was open and he “slipped the traces,” only to end up at the Triphammer Shopping Center, a mile and a half from our house. He was scared and barking wildly. People saw him right away–he was pretty hard to miss–but they were afraid to go to him because of his size. Eventually he was hit by a car. When Barth received the phone call, he was already in trouble. Barth took him to the Cornell veterinary Clinic, but it was too late. Hamshank had escaped one time too many.

After he died, Barth had him cremated and took the ashes to Bob’s Lake, where they were distributed in the nearby bay. People offered their condolences to Barth and Mom. My father expostulated: “No one has said they’re sorry to me and I’m the one who took care of him the most.” Hamshank had definitely become the family dog that we’d never had.

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