Tuesday, October 04, 2016

ajax remembered

It is a lonely soul that has never known the love of a dog, but let's not kid ourselves. Sometimes "man's best friend" is just phoning it in.

When I was a humble schoolteacher living in Haiti, I had a large black Labrador retriever for a companion. ​Named after one of the heroes of "The Iliad," at 80 pounds Ajax was a mountain of a dog. Dogs are abundant in Haiti, but they are a melange of many breeds and usually weigh no more than 20 to 30 pounds. At more than 80 pounds, Ajax was a bruiser, and when I took him places with me, people gave us a wide berth.

Ajax also was solid black, and had both a red leash and a red collar. As black and red are colors associated with voodoo, these became even more reasons for people to avoid him.

Ah, if only they knew. Ajax looked tough, he had a tough name, and he barked even tougher, but that dog was a quivering mass of useless.

Consider the evening I went to visit my friend Brian van Wyhe. Brian had injured himself on his motorcycle and consequently was taking it easy and watching the house of a friend near our school while the friend was in the United States. This was in the spring of 1994, at the height of the embargo before the U.S. invasion, and gasoline was at a premium. Ajax and I had walked three miles or so to see Brian, and now we were walking back.

This involved walking past a police checkpoint on Route de Delmas where a police officer stopped me and asked for proof that Ajax was mine, in an attempt to shake me down for money. I managed to get away without paying anything, partly because I had no money to give him and primarily because I can be a stubborn, respectful person when I need to be.

About two miles uphill, in Petionville, is a second checkpoint, at the start of Route de Kenscoff, the road I would need to take to my apartment. Not wishing a repeat of my previous shake-down, I decided to take a slightly different route through Petionville, and decided to cut through the ravine that runs along Route de Kenscoff.

That was where we met the pack of dogs.

Americans largely think of dogs in the singular. We might own two, or even three, but we typically refer to them as "my dog," or "the family dog." We even engage in charming Western customs like giving the dogs their own dishes to eat from and spending hard-earned money on tins of meat for them. When we're feeling especially cruel, we may even put them in sweaters.

This is not how it works in most of the developing world. Wealthier Haitians may still name their dogs and buy them food and so on, but by and large, dogs there have a function. They protect the people whose homes they live in, by raising the alarm when there is a burglar. For most of Haiti, a dog's only name is chen, and when it raises an alarm it does so as part of a pack of other dogs, with an ungodly chorus of howls, yowls and barking. The commotion is loud enough to wake the dead.

I discovered the truth of this that evening, as Ajax and I entered the ravine and almost immediately were surrounded by a pack of baying, barking, howling dogs. Ajax, who by rights outclassed any three of these dogs put together -- and by "put together," I mean melted down and poured into a very large mold, one with lots of teeth -- did what any loyal dog would do for his master. He rushed into the pack and tore them limb from limb to secure our safe passage.

Ha ha, just kidding! What he really did was to jump up on me for protection and pee on my leg.

People often assume that this reaction means that Ajax was frightened, so badly that he lost control of his bladder like a small child who has had a bad scare at the day care. What we forget is that dogs use urine the way Americans use things like trademarks and cease-and-desist letters. It's meant to mark something as their own and to warn others from trying to take it. Essentially Ajax was telling the other dogs, "This one is mine. Get your own dinner somewhere else."

We ultimately made it through the ravine and got up to Route de Kenscoff fine, unharmed by the dogs and probably giving all the Haitians whom we had woken up something to laugh about.

To this day, I am certain there are tales told in Petionville of the dumb blan who wanders through packs of semi-feral dogs and risks a severe mauling, just to avoid the police. There probably also are debates over whether this isn't actually a good idea, all things considered.

Another time, when I had been up late grading tests and student writing by candlelight, I stepped outside my basement apartment, dressed in my pajamas and wearing sandals to avoid stepping on scorpions or centipedes.

Ajax, always eager to be with me, followed me out. A moment later, he jumped up onto me as was his wont, but missed and hit the apartment door. The door swung shut and latched. With my key inside.

It was 1 a.m. and my landlord, while he lived upstairs, was sound asleep. There was a bench outside my apartment, and though I wasn't adequately dressed to sleep outside at that time of year, it wasn't like I had much choice.

I stretched out on the bench, a 90-pound black Lab curled up on the porch beside me, and slept until 7 a.m. when the landlord came out, saw me, and let me back in.

That dog was such a goofball. I really miss him.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission

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Morale Builder: The legacy of Ajax
Losing Man's Best Friend: Thoughts on the passing of my dog Hamlet:

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