Notes from Napa

Monday, August 02, 2010


Everyone knows about Oski the golden Bear. He’s been Cal’s mascot since the middle of World War II. Here in St. Helena we have our own Oski—only he’s not a bear. He’s an insane, hyperactive golden retriever.

Oski came into our lives some nine years ago. If the pundits are right, that makes him 72 years old on a human scale—36 in chorus girl years. Of course, we still see him as a puppy. And not the sharpest claw on the paw at that.

Being on an academic scholarship was never Oski’s bete noir. But what he lacked in cranial capacity, he more than made up for in an abashed love of life. Oski was Poly Anna with a tail. Shirley Temple with a tennis ball in his mouth. His zest for life was infectious

He was the poster child for Ritalin. Even Billy Jaeger looked calm and composed when Oski was on center stage.

Like so many goldens Oski had an oral fixation. As a puppy, nothing in the house was safe—unless it were clean. Dirty socks were his second favorite target. Dirty underwear his first love. Kleenex from the wastebasket a rare delicacy.

For a year, our house looked like a Chinese laundry after a tornado. I don’t wonder what the neighbors thought. I know. The only thing good about him having something in his mouth all the time was it cut done on his yapping. Ok. I made that up.

Nothing could shut that trap of his.

We should have known we were getting a handful when we first saw him with the rest of the litter. It wasn’t that he was the runt. It was that his tale was “cork screwed”. We were assured we could take him, and when he got older we could have a vet break his tale again and make it good as new.

Somehow, we didn’t think that was the right way to begin a relationship with a puppy and three kids. Besides, we live in the wine country, so there was some poetry to a puppy with a “cork screwed” tale. Also, like Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree, we knew all he needed was a little love.

Besides, anyone who has ever picked a puppy from a litter knows you don’t pick the pooch. He picks you. Oski picked us, and we were mush in his mouth from the moment he whittled in the Goobs lap on the way home in the car.

Oski didn’t housebreak easily. And those teeth. When he wasn’t ripping up Goob’s lacy Victoria Secret stash (ok, I made that up too) he was gnawing on every piece of furniture, which had a leg. Fortunately, in those days our mattresses were on the floor and our bookcases were boards on bricks (somewhat true), so we managed to get through the early years.

Oski was insufferable. All he wanted to do was play. “Retriever”. They named him right. He never tired. We would throw dozens, hundreds (that I’m not making up) of tennis balls, and he’d still come back for more.

Over time, Oski and JJ did what dogs and little boys do. They became inseparable. Daylight would find JJ batting balls by the dozens as Oski chased them over, under, and around the bushes, trees and fences. They had their own games in their own world, and spoke a language none of us knew. When JJ drove the Jeep home after practice, Oski would jump up and paw at the door. When I drove the jeep home, he’d be lounging in front of the fire puffing on a ceegar

At night, much to the Goobs’ chagrin, Oski would find his way under the covers in JJ’s room.

JJ would get a morning tongue-lashing, and then repeat the crime over again the next night. This went on for years, until (as they always do) the little boy grew up and went off to college.

The rest is a country western song.

Oski won’t be here for Christmas. 10 days ago, they said he wouldn’t make Thanksgiving. But JJ was coming home from Notre Dame.

Oski hung on. He perked up and wagged that crooked tail. They spent the weekend together—falling asleep on each other, just like old times. We watched. Powerless.

He lost a brother due to cancer. They said it's hereditary. We know it by another name. A broken heart

Late Sunday they said their goodbyes. JJ caught his midnight plane and began another leg on that flight into manhood—the “real world”. Would that he could only go as a tourist.