Apollo the Great – 3/98 – 5/26/2012*
He was my very best friend.
In the late Spring of my sophomore year of college some friends and I went to a party one cold, wet Friday night. It was freezing, much colder than normal for coastal North Carolina and the rain was coming down in sheets. We had to walk past a few crummy old homes, through a small field, to get to the party. On the way, we noticed about half a dozen, or so, puppies tied up to a tree. Little puppies, maybe 5- 7 pounds a piece. They had no shelter from the elements and were huddled on top of each other to keep warm. We discussed among ourselves how shitty we thought it was that someone would neglect animals like that, but we went on to the party. The party came and went, as did a couple of days.
Then, on Monday, I returned to the house where the party was hosted to visit my friend again. On the same path I noticed the puppies again, yet this time I would act. I knocked on doors. I asked the neighbors. I spoke to my friend. The resounding answer to my questions about who left the puppies was that they simply did not know. In fact, the few shacks closest to where the dogs were tied, appeared to be abandoned.
I waited one more day after telling myself that if they were there when I returned, I was going to take one. At least one, and report the others to animal control to perhaps make them available for adoption.
I don’t recall why I chose Apollo. I presume it was his eyes, as he had the most beautiful brown eyes. Or maybe his smile. He always would turn his head sideways a bit with a curious look and smile.
In any event, I certainly did take Apollo. A court may have called it stealing, but I didn’t care. I gave him life. I would later learn that many of his siblings were not so lucky.
The veterinarian that I took him to immediately, explained that I could probably buy a pure bred dog for the cost of what it was going to take to get him healthy.
“Carry on” I told the vet. This was my dog.
The fur between his ears and on his feet had fallen out. His tummy was raw from insect bites. His stools harbored pin worms and round worms. His skin, from one end of his body to the other, was irritated from ring worm.
Over the coming months his fur grew in and he regained his strength. By the middle of the summer he was the beautiful, bounding dog I grew to love with all of my heart.
When asked about his heritage, I usually said that I suspected his Mom must have been a Rottie while his sire was most likely a “traveling man!” He had the webbed toes of a Labrador, the spotted black tongue of a Chow, the stocky frame and coloring of a true Rottweiler, with the chest of a Mastiff. A wonderful mix of a mutt that was smart like a wolf, could swim like a fish, and would guard that which he felt important to the bitter end.
Apollo was smart and stubborn. To say he was hard-headed would be an understatement and I taught myself patience in training him. I wasn’t easy on him and I challenged him to think. Soon, he would enjoy doing all kinds of tricks like walking on his hind legs in a circle, rolling over, playing dead, shaking “hands” – with each front paw separately, fetching a ball, sitting, walking to a spot in the room where I pointed, taking up a guarding position and becoming alert on command.
When I laid down to sleep, he would wait at the foot of my bed before retiring to his bed. When someone suspicious approached us on our walk, he would face them and back into me enough to allow his rear haunches to touch my legs, so as to know where I was without taking his eyes off the person. If hanging out, he would always lay between me and the door, always on the ready.
He was the epitome of a loyal, courageous and humble guardian.
Through the years of college he enjoyed a rather exciting social life. We threw plenty of parties and he usually had the run of the places I lived. If the window was left open, he found nothing wrong with jumping through it to chase a cat or a squirrel, even if there was a screen. My friends played with him and my girlfriend loved him dearly. In fact, I often thought she loved him more than me, but how could I blame her. He was awesome.
When college ended, I moved 30 minutes from Wilmington to the Northeast Cape Fear River outside my dad’s hometown of Burgaw, where I built a house for my family with the help of cousins and friends. I rented a 14’ FEMA trailer and made the river lot my home for eleven months. Apollo slept underneath the trailer on the cool sand.
Apollo changed some during this time. He became somewhat like a wild fox or wolf. He became less social and less trusting of strangers. After all, he now lived deep in the woods and was tasked with guarding the property. He accepted the role with valor, once climbing a ladder to the second floor of the framed house to chase the cabinet maker onto the roof. He kept the cabinet man on the roof for nearly a full day. While I found it hilarious and could not have been more proud, the man politely told me that my job, my dog and I could go fuck ourselves. I could hear the trees laughing as I carried Apollo down the ladder. The definition of uncomfortable has a picture of a 90 pound dog being dangled from a ladder from the second floor.
I moved into the house when it was complete and remained there for another few years, hosting family, friends and more than an occasional party. Apollo really made that river his home. He would often be found wading at the shore, swimming out to chase a stick, lying in the sun and chasing varmints to and fro. He loved nothing more than to jump on the front of the Jon boat for an afternoon cruise or to take a ride in the back of the truck to the store. Once on a hike, he and I even saw an alligator, the only one I have ever seen in the wild.
He loved the beach also. We would visit Wrightsville Beach, Topsail Beach and Masonboro Island to spend the day and to camp, when we could. Apart from lounging within a couple arm’s lengths, Apollo loved to chase fowl. He would crouch like a tiger, so as to sneak up on them and then jump as high as he could to paw them out of the sky during their initial attempts to escape. All the universe could not contain the pride he emanated when he succeeded once and brought me back a duck.
In making the decision to move to California, I was unsure about my living arrangements and was concerned about Apollo’s well being. My parents and I agreed that he might be better cared for by staying with them, especially since I did not have any way to predict my daily schedule, etc. He could romp in their back yard and appreciate the stability that they could provide. They took him in with open arms, where he quickly won their hearts over, too. Mom loved taking him on walks in the morning and afternoons, often on the trails that I made when I was kid. Just a few houses from ours, there is a swath of woods that is about ¼ of a mile from a cul-de-sac, where Mom would remove his leash and he would run free and “do his business.”
Apollo protected my Mom and Dad every night.. He put Dad to bed first, laying at the foot to see him safely asleep. After he started snoring, he would get up and keep Mom company until her bedtime, then the same routine. After they both were both safely tucked in, he would position himself on the stair landing so he could keep a watchful eye on them both as well as the street.
Always faithful, always vigilant. Any untoward event called for a “low roll” of his bass voice… a growl that would strike visceral fear in the belly of any scoundrel who might need a good warning. When Dad asked him “whoizzit?” he would give a full report!! He did not seem to let an hour or more pass without letting the comforting clink of his “dog tags” be heard, as he made his nightly rounds. He knew his job and he did it well.
During every weekday, he would hang out with Linda, the business manager of our family business at her office in our home. She spoiled him with sausages and gravy and all variety of treats. While she can probably tell it better, from all accounts, his routine included lounging in the the grass in the shade watching the yard, laughing at the birds dancing in the bath, and chasing the squirrels like hell when they dared to touch the earth.
His only feline friend lived at my parent’s house, too. Ticow was a bristly hussy of cat. When he was very young she swiped his nose, punishing his excited puppy curiosity. He respected her claws until her final days. Later, as he would outweigh her by nearly 80 pounds, he delighted in teasing her with the affectionate growling and rushed through the porch threshold. He never hurt or bit her, but he certainly upped his growling volume to let her know what could be possible. She would always sashay off with a hiss and her tail in the air to tell him, “You don’t matter to me.”
Whenever I came home to visit my family and friends, the first thing I would do is to pick him up. We would embrace in the front yard and he would do his customary bull rush! Slobbering and running fast, his offense included jumping to my waist level to hit me with his chest and wrap his strong front legs around me. We’d wrestle and run and chase and laugh. I’d instruct him to look in a certain direction to point and he would. He would scramble over to check things out—run back—tongue panting—sit—half-sit—“over there (with a point)—“go get it” and the pattern would start again. He loved jumping into the car, often sitting much life a human on his butt with his hind legs forward and his front legs holding the A frame of the car door. Once he knew we were on the highway, which meant only one thing, we were off to the river house, he would retire to the back seat to rest. Never asleep. Just resting. As soon as we left the black top on Old Ramsay Road he would spring to life again. He’d poke his head out of the window to be able to smell the forest he loved so much. Once parked at the house, his inspection of the property was long and thorough. It might be an hour or more before he was satisfied that everything was tip top. We’d take rides on the Jon boat and walks around the lake. We’d hunt small game and watch that slow warm Cape Fear River flow past from the porch. Days would pass without sight or sound from another human and we could not have been happier.
The years passed quickly. While it seemed like I had moved to California only very recently, I realized that Apollo was many years older when my mother told me that he would need to stay with me—I wanted to be there for him.
Arrangements were made and he was flown from Raleigh to Los Angeles on Delta Airlines. I was a nervous wreck the day he arrived (and so were my parents.) It had been years since anyone depended on me the way I knew he would. “How would he adjust to the busy city?” I wondered. I knew it was going to be fine when I saw those big ears flopping in the wind and a big smile across his face as a forklift whisked him across the holding warehouse floor in his travel crate. Man, was I glad to see him!
It took him a few days to get accustomed to my apartment, the walk that was most convenient through the busy streets, and my food. Actually, he didn’t get accustomed to the food I bought him. After what ended up being 3 days of him not eating, I asked mom what the problem might be.
Me – I just don’t know what to do.
Mom – Well, what are you feeding him?
Me – I bought the best dog food they had.
Mom – What are you mixing it with?
Me – Uhh, nothing why?
Mom – Oh well, you have to mix some real cooked meat with the dog food or he won’t eat it, as you can see.
Me – Oh now I get it.
Mom – Yeah, just cook either bacon or hamburger and mix it into his food. He’ll eat it right up.
So, my cooking career started. Every morning around 7 am, the house smelled of burger. At 7 pm, burger again. I often found myself cooking for him and making a bowl of cereal for myself.
Our daily routine was to walk around the block or when he was up to it, down to the beach.
At first, I found myself being in a hurry. I was impatient, walking him as a chore. I would call him firmly and he would come.
Then I changed. I found joy in watching and waiting on him to smell new plants, to discover new crannies on our walks and to rest when he needed to. I took him camping in Topanga Canyon, where he seemed to really enjoy the forest. I took him to the dog beach to wade in the Pacific and he like the cold water on his belly. I took him on long rides up the coast and he loved to hang his big fat head out the window, the ocean whizzing by.
I knew that he was slowing down considerably and that his aging hips were causing him difficulty in walking, going from lying down to standing, etc. He could walk down the stairs but I would have to carry him up and I liked it. I would grab him under his chest with my left arm and under his tummy with my right – up we went to the second floor. I loved holding his warm body next to mine, dog hair and all. Because of his walking/climbing situation and the fact that he weighed 90 or so pounds, I did not feel comfortable asking anyone to take care of him, so apart from one weekend, I didn’t leave for more than 12 hours during the last nine months of his life.
On Thursday, May 25, 2012, Apollo and I laid together for hours. I felt him beside me and his beautiful eyes looked into mine. While the warrior in him would hide it, he was tired. I knew it was time. I went out for a drink with a friend. We laughed a bit, but I was not myself, so I went back home. I laid there with Apollo. I petted his head and combed his beautiful fur. I spoke to him and let him know how thankful I was for his friendship and companionship. I let him know how much I loved him and how much he meant to me. He thanked me in return. His big smile was there, even though his aging was evident from his grey muzzle. He rested his head on my arm. Night passed and I awoke.
Beside the veterinarian’s office in Malibu was a large field with wild flowers and rolling hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We went there and held each other as the vet met us. Apollo was calm and courageous. He knew what needed to be done and he let me know he would be waiting on the other side.
On May 26, 2012 about 11 am under a brilliant blue sky, Apollo, my dearest friend, passed on to another world.
Or so I thought.
Since he and I always lived within a mile of the water and were sailors, I felt it only appropriate that he be given a proper sea burial. Alone, I took the helm of sailboat, with Apollo beside me in the cockpit. I sailed toward the Pacific Ocean from Marina del Rey. That day was uncharacteristically rough at sea, as the wind was approaching 30 knots just after lunch. In checking the weather, a gale warning was in effect, with combined seas between 7-9 feet and growing.
I would not have had it any other way and forged ahead.
Upon rounding the break water jetty to enter the Pacific, a Coast Guard cutter requested (over a loud speaker) that I communicate with them via radio.
Coast Guard – There is a gale warning in effect. We strongly advise you to return to port.
Me – Thank you for the advice.
Coast Guard – Are you stating that you are NOT returning to port?
Me – That is correct. I am not returning to port until I am ready.
Coast Guard – Please notate that this conversation is being recorded to document that we have warned you about traveling to sea right now.
Me – Duly noted. Signing off.
It felt appropriate and I laughed big and loud. Apollo and I had told authority to stick it in their ass to the bitter end.
I sailed about 5 miles off shore.
I laughed and cried and prayed and was quiet and shouted in the air and sat still in a boat that was being swooshed through the water by the wind and the waves.
Then I returned Apollo back to the earth and the sea.
When I got back to port I called my Mom to let her know it was done. There was closure and I was peaceful. Mom asked me if I had left his collar on him and I replied that I had. She explained that that was good, as he always liked wearing his collar and having a jingle from his tags.
The next couple of days were a blur. I did all I could to stay busy and cleaned everything in my house. I moved furniture to sweep. I washed all linens and the couch slip covers. Everything.
On Sunday I visited a friend in San Diego.
I like working with my hands when I am not feeling upbeat or when I am sad. It heals me and makes me feel better. I was finding solace working on my motorcycle, when at 3 pm I received a text message from an unknown number.
Aaron: I have a message about your dog. Carrie
Carrie – Aaron, is your dog missing?
Me – Why?
Carrie – I’m very sorry, but I believe your dog may have drowned.
Me – Oh my. Where is he?
Carrie – Well, he’s here on the beach.
Me – What beach?
Carrie – Right here on the beach. Just north of New Port.
Me – Wow. Ok, will you text me the approximate location on the beach?
Carrie – Of course. Again, I am very sorry.
Me – Thank you.
I sort of cried and sort of laughed. I guess it isn’t lore to have to weigh down a body if you want to properly dispose of one at sea. Good to know..
So much for closure. Remember at the beginning of this story when I said this dog was stubborn..
I knew what I had to do.
It took a few hours, as it was night, but I found Apollo resting on the beach at approximately 1 am. He looked great. A little wet but still smiling and as handsome as ever.
I laughed and cried and prayed and was quiet and shouted in the air and sat still as the powerful waves crashed at my feet.
Then I returned Apollo back to the earth and the sea…again.
I took his collar this time and buried him at low tide. A few feet away I saw a sea gull that has passed on as well, so I buried it not far away so Apollo was sure to have something to chase.
I smiled. I laughed hard! Big laughing, all alone on that beach in the middle of the night; it must have been 3 am.
I mean really, how many dogs do you know of that have needed to be buried twice? Fucking amazing.!!
Since then, I have reflected on his life and the friendship we forged.
I have held on to lessons that I feel he tried to teach me:
- rest when you need to
- the best way to get love is to give lots of love
- take time to be curious
- trust your gut
- get excited for tasty food
- relish time outside
- be loyal
- be honest and don’t try to be something you are not
- a cat can be a friend, even though she swiped your nose
- be relentless in pursuit of happiness
- never ,ever stop when there is a job to be done
He helped me become a better man, I hope.
Apollo, I am thankful for you. I will miss you and I love you with all my heart.
ps – while I personally have buried him twice, it is still uncertain if he is really gone. I’ve heard storied from sailors, from time to time, of a mysterious figure off in the distance. Walking about with a light limp, like one might have if one of their legs were wooden. They cry that it resembles a black dog, sort of like a bear but closer to a wolf. For souls that are true, he guards and protects. For men damned to hell, he chases relentlessly through the night, in and out of their dreams, for all of eternity.
So if the weather is poor, rations are low, and you find yourself on the brink of the world, depending upon the way you have moved through your days, Apollo the Great might just be there, too! May you be so lucky, if you are deserving. May the Lord have mercy on your soul, if you are not.