Where Old Shep, Ginger, and I Belonged

This is me, racing my bike on Wagner Street in Warren, circa 1958.
I learned to walk with Old Shep at my side. Young at heart, our collie belonged to everybody who lived and played in the McCoy Bottom, even Little Man’s children who lived next door to Uncle Herm and Aunt Dean. You didn’t have to be a McCoy to live in the bottom, or up on the hill. Old Shep knew that. He licked every child for a hug around the neck.
My goodness, long before Old Shep was a pup, my Grandfather Lonzo and Grandmother Laura O’Brien took up housekeeping where Little Man lived with his family. Almost everyone who dwelled along Peter Creek before, during, and after World War II settled for a spell into one of the five log cabins Great-grandpa Lark built.
Great-grandpa had logged the mountains and used Peter Creek when running high for transporting timber downstream to the Tug River, the boundary between Kentucky and West Virginia. Of nomadic nature, the O’Brien family lived in the McCoy Bottom before the War long enough for Mom to catch Dad’s eye. 
When my father returned home from the War in his Marine uniform, Mom and Old Shep welcomed him. When Mom and Dad moved us to Michigan, Old Shep remained at the homeplace where he belonged. He slept in the barn in winter and under the stars in summer. He never stepped a paw inside the homeplace. A farm dog knew his habitation and gladly abided within it. He hunted his own food and drank from the creek. A smart dog, Old Shep knew to stay off the road to live a long life. I never knew another childhood guardian and companion like Old Shep.
When we lived in Michigan on Wagner Street, Ginger was our family pet, another darling cocker spaniel Uncle Jess bred. Unlike Old Shep, Ginger had no barn for shelter, and Dad’s garage was off limits to her. She slept in the house with us, sometimes curled up on the foot of a bed.
Mom fed Ginger dog food and kept a water bowl on the landing to the basement. Some neighbor mothers feared dog bites and rabies, so Ginger didn’t have freedom to run our neighborhood. Unlike Old Shep, she didn’t belong to Wagner Street. She belonged to the O’Briens at 25708.
As children, we did our best to care for Ginger’s health and happiness. We played with her and brought her back to our yard when she strayed to another. We didn’t want our puppy to run away like Buttons did the winter we lived on Yacama Street in Detroit.
Mom had calmed our fears. “Dogs are meant to run outdoors. That’s why they have a coat of fur to keep them warm. Some nice family must’ve found Buttons and given him a good home.”
Thankfully, Ginger was smart like Old Shep and knew not to cross the street without us. Ginger also wagged her way into our games on the front and back lawn. She jumped on us when we played leapfrog. She ran in circles when Dad brought out his kite reel and kite. Then she chased the runner who launched the kite. And how she barked and chased the wheels on our bikes! 
My favorite place with Ginger was the woods across from Frazho Road where I discovered rhubarb. We both belonged to the trees and swamp, like Old Shep and the McCoy Bottom and Peter Creek.
As the ninth summer of my life came to a close on Wagner Street, one day Ginger no longer wagged her tail and chased us on our bikes. I never dreamed our cuddly dog could get sick. Mom didn’t seem too alarmed until Ginger’s tongue hung from her mouth and she walked into walls. I felt sorry for our pet when Mom carried her to the garage. A shiver went through me when Mom closed the door. Ginger could suffocate in the heat.
I followed Mom into the house where she dialed the phone. She talked to someone about Ginger. “Distemper?”
I was too short to see Ginger through the narrow garage door windows, so I climbed on a chair and peeked through the window above the flower box. I could barely see our sweet dog in the darkness. It broke my heart. She couldn’t stand on her four paws. She staggered as if she was blind. 
The thought never crossed my mind that Ginger might die.
Then a man came to our house. “Everybody go home, please,” he said.
He looked through a garage window. Then he slipped on a one-piece suit, mask, and a pair of gloves that went up to his elbows.
“Mrs. O’Brien, please take your children inside the house,” he said.
I dashed downstairs alone and paced the width of our unfinished basement back and forth. My heart and head throbbed with the force of love and loss for Ginger. The man’s boots passed by the basement window. I knew he took Ginger with him. I knew I would never see her again.
I sobbed as never before because there was nothing I could do to save Ginger. I’d realized too late how much love and joy our red-haired puppy had given my family and me.
 Ginger’s death left an inconsolable hole in my heart that only Old Shep could fill when we returned to the McCoy Bottom in summertime. My mother must have suffered similar grief, for she never accepted another puppy of any breed from Uncle Jess. She took in tomcats instead. More practical, they didn’t possess puppy-dog eyes that stole your heart before you knew what was happening.
Little did we know another cocker spaniel waited seven years in our future.