The Dogs in My Life


Kenneth C. Balcomb

From The Dogs in My Life. The author was born in 1891 and owned fourteen dogs during his long life, with Queen being the fifth. She was an English Pit Terrier, having been introduced in the previous chapter. The university in the story is the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

 The story of Queen is a long one, covering six years of an important period of my life. She went through two years of high school with me and four years at the university. When I was receiving my graduation certificate from the university, and the President was hanging the hood around my neck, he whispered in my ear, “Where’s Queen? We have one for her, too.” Actually it was about the only university function she did not attend in the four years.

During those six years she had two litters of puppies, got a serious dose of strychnine poisoning, made friends with six entire student bodies, and was my ever-constant companion, sometimes even being my bedfellow.

Being a female, we knew that Queen would have periods when she would be altogether too receptive of masculine company. The apartment we rented was–we thought—ideal, in that it had a basement in which we could shut her during these periods. It also had a fenced backyard where she could run during normal times. Neither of these arrangements worked out perfectly. Queen took violent exception to being left in the yard alone when I went to school, and she barked, making herself a neighborhood nuisance. It was probably this that provoked some lowlife person to throw some meat doped with strychnine to her.

The effect of strychnine is to paralyze the nervous system. Its effect is exceedingly painful to the victim and horribly revolting to the observer. I found her in the backyard when I got home from school in the throes of paralytic spasms. I had been told of the symptoms of strychnine poisoning and of the antidote, so I went into action. The antidote is to administer a quantity of warm milk laced with oil to cause the victim to vomit. If the poison has not been too much absorbed, this will wash it from the stomach and save the victim.

The trick, of course, was to get the dosage into her. She was foaming at the mouth and her jaws were snapping open and shut, making it quite probable that she would bite me if I tried to hold her mouth open. Here again, I had been told what to do: put a stick crossways in the back of the mouth between the teeth so the mouth can’t close, bind the stick into place by winding a cord around one end, around the jaw, and around the other end. This is easier to tell about than it was to do, but I finally got it done and drenched her with the potion. After I released her, she threw up and gagged repeatedly until she was exhausted and lay down trembling—but the paroxysms died down and she finally slept. Queen was a thoroughly sick dog for a week or more, but she fully recovered.

After that, I felt I could not leave her alone in the back yard, so I tried taking her to school with me. The janitor of the high school was a Civil War veteran named Colonel Johnson, a great friend to all the students. The basement of the building was his sanctum where he would often entertain some of us with stories of the war. I appealed to Colonel Johnson to assist me with Queen, asking him to keep her in his sanctum while I was in classes. He took to Queen right away—as everybody did—and she took to him, and the arrangement worked out very well. During recess I would get her and she would take part in whatever game was being played. Even the teachers came to know her affectionately.

I remember Queen, not only because of her constant companionship, but because she was such a wonderful playmate. She entered into all play with us, from swimming to baseball. Although she had the disadvantages of dogs not born to water, she was a surprisingly strong swimmer and loved the water. The river [Rio Grande] was the only place we had to swim and Queen would swim alongside of me—even when the stream was especially swift, and I would fear for her. She was always able to come out of any situation without help. Queen enjoyed hanging onto a stick which I would try to pull away from her, and at the river I sometimes swung her around like a hammer thrower at a track meet, and threw her as far as I could out into the river. She would light with a great splash, go under, regain her control, and swim out triumphantly, still holding the stick. She undertook all such antics, not out of obedience, but as a part of the game, entering into the play like another one of us kids.

Queen loved children, acting as a playmate and guardian. Although it never became necessary, as far as I knew, I felt sure she would have dealt roughly with anyone that undertook to molest any of the children in our neighborhood with whom she played. She took great delight in retrieving a ball that I threw. Sometimes when a group of children was playing nearby, I would roll a ball into their midst and Queen would charge after it, upsetting two or three of the children. She thought this was great fun, and so did the children—even the ones who were toppled.

Although we never had a cat while we had Queen, she seemed to have an inherent jealousy of cats. All I had to do to get her to eat something she did not want to eat—a piece of orange, for example—was to say “Kitty, kitty,” and she would gobble it down. She seemed to sense the humor in such an antic and would jump around and bark joyously after performing. She delighted in pestering other people’s cats by chasing them up a tree. I spent many an hour getting neighbors’ cats out of trees.

Queen was not much of a hunting dog, although she did fairly well while upland bird hunting. She would go after a dove or quail we knocked down, but usually had trouble finding it, as her sense of smell did not seem too keen. On a duck hunt she was more of a liability that an asset. We could not keep her warm in the blind and were afraid to let her go into ice water. This became an embarrassment to me, as I could not get away to go hunting without her raising an awful furor. She was more trouble that she was worth on the hunt.

The basement area—where we had planned to keep Queen during those times when it was necessary to keep her from her overanxious boyfriends—failed me in the beginning. The first time we shut her in, we found out to what extremes both the male and female will go to in these circumstances. There were two window openings to the basement, both closed tightly with glass windows. On the second night Queen was incarcerated, a dog broke out the glass in one window frame and jumped in with her. The noise awoke me and I rushed down to see what was the matter, but on hearing me, the male dog jumped out of the window and the ever-anxious Queen followed him. In spite of my calling and searching I could not find her.

On the next morning a thoroughly ashamed Queen showed up looking much the worse for wear, and it was not long before signs of the results began to show. Thereafter, until puppies were born, and until I was able to dispose of them, Queen had to stay either in the yard or the basement, except when I could take her for a run. With the company of the puppies, she behaved very well when I left home. At first, we thought we might raise some of the pups if they showed a line of inheritance similar to Queen’s, but they turned out to be a nondescript lot, and I had to give them all away.

I made sure this fiasco would not be repeated by securing the basement windows in a way that even the most ambitious male could not destroy.

One time we deliberately bred Queen to a beautiful white Bull Terrier that belonged to a friend, hoping to make some money selling the pups. The venture was not a financial success. I learned that people might very well admire a dog and even accept one as a gift, but they resisted paying money for one, so I gave all but one away. The pup we kept was beautifully marked and was a female. I could not afford to have her ears and tail cropped by a veterinarian and could not bring myself do to it, so she grew up with floppy ears and an outsized tail. I named her Salome because when she wagged her tail she succeeded in wagging her whole rear end from side to side.

It was at the university that Queen was exposed to the full educational process. Here we had no full-time general assembly where we all studied between classes, as at the high school when Queen was relegated to the basement with Colonel Johnson. We were actually in school only during recitation classes and from the first, for some reason, the profs did not object to Queen’s attending with me. In most cases she would even lie under the professor’s desk as class was conducted. In retrospect, this seems rather extraordinary, as surely it could not have been a general practice or the classes would have been overrun by dogs. The only classes where she was not welcome were in the gymnasium, the basketball court, or on the baseball and football fields. She could not get used to not being a part of the game, and demoralized activities trying to join me in every move.

Four years at the university with Queen ever-at-my-heels developed many interesting and amusing incidents involving her—too many to attempt to cover in this story. Three of them that stand out in my memory, however, should be told.

It was the custom of the university to hold a fete on the night of Washington’s birthday, and the puppy, Salome, became the star performer at one of them. Each organization on campus was asked to put on some sort of a show or stunt. The state armory in the city was rented and each participant was given a floor space on which to set up his stunt. Twenty-five cents admission was charged and each purchaser of a ticket was given a long row of ordinary theater tickets which he could use to see the various shows. At the end of the fete the organization whose show had taken in the most tickets received a prize.

I was a member of a local fraternity on campus called Sigma Tau, and in considering what kind of a show we could put on one year, we decided to show Salome. We painted stripes on her body and tail making her resemble—with apologies—a tiger, and put her in a pen in the tent we erected on our space. In front of the tent, we put up big banners showing a ferocious tiger springing out of a jungle tree on a terrified native. A barker dressed in tails and a plug hat, with painted face and a false mustache, pranced up and down on a platform in front of the banner, swinging a gold-headed cane and exhorting the audience to “come in and see the terrible tiger,” just for one ticket. A gullible prospect, lured into the booth by these wiles, was confronted with a two-foot-high wire enclosure in which poor little Salome cowered, casting terrified eyes at this stream of strangers.

It was such a colossal fake that those who had been duped told everybody as they went out that they must see the terrible tiger—a sort of “misery loves company” reaction that worked so well that our booth got the grand prize for having taken in the most tickets.

It took a week of repeated scrubbing to rid Salome of the ignominy of being a striped tiger. Not long after I had cleaned her of her one-and-only theatrical performance, I gave Salome to a friend who had her ears and tail cropped, and she eventually became a right “respectical-looking” terrier.

The girls’ dormitory at the university was called Hokona, a replica of a Pueblo Indian building. Birds made nests in the vigas extending from the front of the building, and one day I noticed a group of girls gesticulating over something on the pavement under one of the vigas. A baby bird had fallen out of a nest and the girls were commiserating over its plight. Queen went to smell the object and without really thinking of the possible consequences, I said “Kitty, kitty.” Without hesitation Queen gobbled the baby bird. Of course, the girls were horrified, and Queen and I were literally in the dog house for weeks with the occupants of Hokona.

Vesper services were held on Sunday afternoons at Rodey Hall. At the time, I was president of the university YMCA and, as such, conducted the service. Normally, Queen would lie under the table on the stage while the service was in progress, but one Sunday she was not there. In the middle of the service, when I was conducting a responsive reading, she appeared at the door of the hall dragging a huge thigh bone of a cow. It was too big for her to carry, so she dragged it along the floor, bumpity-bumping as she came, and up the three steps to the stage with louder bumping, and finally deposited the bone under the table and lay down contentedly. After everybody had stopped laughing, I tried to go on with the meeting, but in an atmosphere not altogether religious.

When I graduated as a civil engineer and got my first field job, I realized that Queen and I must have a parting of our ways. It was a heartbreaking decision to have to make—separation from a pet that had been much more than a pet for so many years. It was made easier when I had the opportunity to give her to a Mr. Stoup, who ran a dairy south of town and whom I knew to be a kindly man with animals. As Mr. Stroup led her away, Queen looked back at me repeatedly—wondering, no doubt, what her lifelong pal was doing to her.

I returned to town for a few days in the fall and, while walking down Second Street, saw Queen sitting regally on the seat of a battered old pickup which was parked at the curb. Mr. Stroup was not around. I was overjoyed to see her and approached, intending to pet her, but she snarled and bared her teeth to let me know in no uncertain terms that I was not to approach that car. I was shocked and hurt, but realized that she was protecting her owner’s property; I decided to wait. When Mr. Stroup came, her whole attitude changed and she greeted me effusively, licking my hand and barking in her excitement. Mr. Stroup told me a remarkable story about Queen—one that made me very proud of her.

The Stroup’s had three children, the youngest a baby girl of three. Queen had taken over custody of the children, staying with them whenever they were out-of-doors. An irrigation ditch ran a short distance from their house and one day when Mr. Stroup was in the fields and Mrs. Stroup was preoccupied with her house chores, the little girl wandered down to the ditch and fell in. Queen was with her, jumped in and pulled her out onto the bank, and ran to the house barking furiously. Mrs. Stroup went to see what the matter was and followed Queen down to the ditch, discovering the baby on the bank. The baby was drowned.

As Mr. Stroup told me of it, tears came to his eyes and he patted Queen. “I would not take a thousand dollars for this dog,” he said, and I felt so thankful that my longtime friend and companion had such an appreciative home. I was not to see Queen again, but learned that she lived three more years, to be—I figured— a ripe old twelve years.

photo ©Robert Balcomb

Kenneth Chester Balcomb (1891-1979) was a civil engineer and surveyor, worked for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, and worked in real estate and insurance. He was also a painter, world traveler, rock hound, and author (A Boy’s Albuquerque, 1898-1912, University of New Mexico Press; The Red River Hill, Albuquerque Historical Society; and Me & the Model T, Amphora Editions). The Dogs in My Life will be published by Amphora Editions in late 2019.