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In dog years, it was a life well lived

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By Doug Bell

“I am a clock without hands

I’m walking through the midnights

Counting all the moments

Of the loves I’ve left behind.”

— Nanci Griffith,

“A Clock Without Hands”

One day during the first Bush administration, before many of us had even heard of the Internet, my parents decided to fill their empty nest by making a quick trip to the local animal shelter in the very rural part of Pennsylvania where I grew up. They returned home with a bedraggled canine of uncertain age and even less certain lineage, and they named him Buddy.

We’ve never known much about Buddy’s life previous to that day. It was obvious he’d seen some tough times, and his tendency to cower in the presence of man or beast suggested that he hadn’t received the best of treatment. But he quickly came to love his new home, and Buddy was a constant companion to Mom and Dad, accompanying them everywhere in the back seat of their K-Car and running free through the yards and woods and fields.

A short time later, early in the first Clinton administration, a steady diet of Dairy Queen cheeseburgers and Cocoa Puffs had enabled Buddy to fill out a bit (quite a lot, actually), and a constant supply of affection from nearly everyone in town had produced a deliriously happy dog whose tail never stopped wagging.

Sometime in there, the White House began placing a good-looking pup named Buddy in photo ops, and so my parents were the proud owners of a pooch whose name was famous, but whose pedigree did not exactly match that of the nation’s first dog.

Still, Buddy’s herding instincts and spotted paws indicated that he probably was at least part border collie, and as his confidence grew, so did his inclination to round up everything from cows to Camaros. One quiet summer night was interrupted by a loud “bonk” and the sound of squealing brakes, and a search party with flashlights quickly mobilized in an attempt to find Buddy’s broken body.

Buddy joined the search a short time later, tail wagging, with a very large lump on his head. But he looked a lot better than the fender of that vehicle. And he appeared far less traumatized than the car’s owner.

As K-Cars gave way to SUVs, Buddy’s life became a lot less active. My father left us in the fall of ’96, and Buddy happily moved in with my Uncle Art and Aunt Jean while Mom recovered from a broken hip.

Then, later in Bill Clinton’s presidency, amid Columbine and the tech bust, we moved Buddy and my mother to Denver, where open fields and bovine targets were less plentiful, and where a dog with a wild heart and rear-mounted metronome adjusted to wearing a collar and leash. And to a new diet that did not include Big Macs.

As even more years passed, Buddy lived off and on at my house as Mom’s health deteriorated. He finally moved in permanently during the first term of the second Bush — a difficult adjustment, for our intrepid canine found himself in close quarters with an aging feline who was tougher and even more set in his ways.

That odd couple would co-exist in a curious detente for many years, until one morning Buddy’s 20-year-old cat companion did not come home from a trip to the vet. I’ve never been sure who grieved more — Buddy, or the owner he tried so hard to comfort in those difficult first days when it was just the two of us.

And so last week, despite Colorado visits by a president and a presidential candidate, Buddy decided not to stick around for the next inauguration. He had endured three occupants of the White House, an unknown number of owners, and a life which spanned cataclysmic events that changed the world, along with the smaller tragedies that changed his life and mine.

At some point Buddy’s life became the calendar by which I measured my own, and these days I feel a little like a clock with no hands. And yet Buddy, like all great animal companions, measured time not in increments but with loyalty and love and joy. And he filled his days, and mine, to the brim.

Doug Bell is the editor of Evergreen Newspapers.