When I was a six, I lived on the Southwest side of Chicago, and my neighbors owned a dog – a Siberian Huskie with the soul of the mythic three-headed, snake-tailed Cerberus. The dog outweighed me, towered over me, and certainly had larger muscles than I had. The dog also appeared to possess indescribable ferocity. His loud barking and his propensity to run and jump against the see-though chain-link fence, which made it shake and rattle, scared me down to my soul. Whenever I heard the sound of my neighbor’s door opening, I bolted inside the house. I am not sure what went faster, my legs and feet or my heart. Even though I loved my backyard, I never totally relaxed because of my persistent fear of that dog.
As a kid, I loved dogs but my neighbor’s pet was no dog – it was a beast; stronger, faster, louder, and scarier than anything I knew. I routinely jumped over chain link fences – a tradition in the Chicago neighborhoods laden with bungalows and tiny yards. As a result, I knew that if I, a little boy, could manage to get by the fence, so could that dog. Besides, how could a fence so feeble be a match for a wild beast that hated me, intended to harm me, and quite possibly wanted to eat me?
I despised my neighbors for allowing that dog to roam the backyard. I did not understand their indifference regarding their pet’s desire to harm me. Disney movies and nursery rhymes are full of evil grown-ups who detest children. “Maybe my next-door neighbors hated kids,” I thought. I wondered if they laughed at the sight of their dog tormenting me.
My parents angered me, too; they did not seem to believe me that the dog – a ferocious, famished monster – wanted me for lunch. I explained to my mom that the dog, every day, tried to knock down the fence and come after me. I pleaded with my parents to talk to the neighbors or construct a brick wall as a barrier between the two yards. Rather than help me, my parents had the audacity to tell me that the dog was friendly and that I should not be scared of him, much to my dismay. Obviously, the dog fooled everyone except me. Only I knew the truth.
My bedroom window overlooked both backyards. I saw that dog go after every ball that managed to escape into their yard. I watched that beast viciously chew every one of them. The dog ripped apart tennis balls, whiffle balls, rubber balls, and footballs. To me, that was proof the dog was evil, cruel, and desperate to rip me apart, too. As a result, the idea of climbing the fence to retrieve anything I lost stirred unimaginable anxiety within me.
When I had to take the garbage out to the cans in the alley, I had to walk along the sidewalk that connected our house to the alley. This sidewalk took me through a tight spot between their garage and ours. That tight space, where no one could see us, clearly existed as the perfect spot for the dog to hop the fence, corner me and attack me. I had nightmares about my inability to scream for help as the dog pinned me down and chewed me like every trinket I lost in his yard. As a result, when I took the garbage to the alley, I ran – the embodiment of a human being’s innate ability to exercise the art of flight in order to avoid the fight.
I used to make sure our own back door was shut tight and locked because I feared that if the dog ever got over that fence, he would surely try to get into our house. My mom used to get frustrated with me for shutting the door during nice weather when she wanted to let a cool breeze into the house. I knew that pathetic and weak screen door could not stop that dog. Any Catholic schoolchild knows a possessed beast when he or she sees it – the dog was pure evil and probably a servant of the devil, one no priest could defeat as exorcist.
As an adult, I know that dog that never hurt anyone and it did not maul anything I threw into their yard. Instead, the dog played with them like most dogs played with balls. I wonder if he ever thought, “Hey, that’s the kid that always gives me fun chew toys!” Nevertheless, despite any logic that I enjoy as an adult, my Pavlovian response to memories of that dog involves a racing heartbeat and butterflies. When I think back to him, I can still hear a bark so deep and loud, it could drown out the planes flying in and out of nearby Midway Airport.
Although the dog meant no harm, my fear was real. I barely remember the dog, but I remember the fear. If you ever have gone back to your elementary school, you’ll notice the desks and things look so small, despite seeming so big to you as a child. As such, in my mind, that dog still towers over me. I don’t see that dog as a lovable house pet, I still see it as I did as a child – huge, ferocious, and menacing. He lives forever in my mind as an intimidating beast.
FDR once famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear, itself.” Like the dog next door, I learned, over time, that many of my fears throughout life resulted from ignorance. I learned that fear limited me. As a baseball player, you learn to get in the batter’s box, even if it means the ball might one day hit you. Simply put, you can’t hit the ball if you never get in the box. More times than not, taking a journey has provided me immense joy, unending fulfillment, and presented me with opportunities that I could never have predicted.
If I don’t get to know the big dogs, I will never leave the house.