by Mark Blackwell
There was a feller that lived up the road from me named Finley Long. It was not my privilege to know him because he died back in 1984, before I showed up in these parts. I would have liked to known him, though. It seems Finley was a bachelor who lived in a little cabin abutting Yellowwood State Forest. I got interested in Finley by way of a Slats Klug song called “Finley and his Dog.” You can find it on Slats’s “Sweet Magnolia.” Slats recalled the story he read in the History and Families of Brown County about the dog and his owner—so I looked it up. As I read the short article I was struck by certain commonalities that Finley and I shared.
Finley built his own cabin next to Yellowwood as I did and was also intrigued with the flora and fauna of his surroundings. According to the article, he knew a great deal about the herbs that grew in the woods, loved hunting mushrooms and ginseng, and landscaped his yard with wildflowers. These are all skills that I have accomplished or I’m at least drawn to. Even the mention that Finley loved animals and would never kill one even if he was hungry struck a chord with me.
The article went on to say that later in his life Finley owned a half Saint Bernard, half Irish Setter dog. It didn’t say how long that he had the dog but that in the spring of 1984 Finley was feeling poorly. He went to the hospital to get checked-up but never returned home. Finley Long died on April 19 of that year. But that wasn’t the end of the story. The concluding paragraph relates that “…the dog grieved himself to death. There is nothing more faithful as a dog to its master.”
I once owned a half Saint Bernard, half Irish Setter. I don’t know what Finley’s dog was named but mine was Speedboat. Speedboat’s chief duty was to protect my kids—even from their parents. I got Speedboat as a gift from a good friend of mine who is also now my closest neighbor. When I first saw the pup he was about ten weeks old and a ball of fur with size eleven paws. In a year I had a 140 pound puppy.
At first I was worried about the cost of feeding such an animal and then I worried about the cost of not feeding him. He had a ferocious appetite that lasted until he was about two years old. Luckily, all our neighbors liked him and if there was a cookout within a mile or so I could count on Speedboat to be the self-designated guest of honor. And like any good guest he was enthusiastic about the menu and polite enough never to turn down anything he was offered. He was a dog who liked people and loved parties.
After a couple of years out in the country I moved the family up to Bloomington. The kids were getting older and I thought it would be good for them to have a little more access to education and culture. I was concerned about the dog’s survival in an urban setting. I shouldn’t have worried. He assimilated with alacrity. There are a lot more people and a lot more parties in a mile of city. It wasn’t long before I was meeting folks who already knew Speedboat. He was a lot more popular than I ever was, not to mention better looking and at times better behaved.
I think a good part of his charm was the fact that he liked to entertain people. He could do a number of tricks: shake hands, roll over, fetch, and he loved to answer questions. I could say, “Hey Speedboat, how’s it going?” He would reply. If he could tell that you were asking a question, he would answer. Don’t get me wrong, his English wasn’t all that understandable, but the funny sounds he made and the sincere looks that he could come up with were good enough for anybody.
Speedboat hung in there with me through a lot of changes. The kids grew up. I went back to college for a while. There were job changes and even location changes. I moved back out into the country over on northeast side of Bloomington by Griffy Lake. Speedboat loved that place, too. There were deer to chase and creeks to swim in and new people to meet.
But time was moving on. I knew I was getting older, I could feel it. But I never really thought about Speedboat aging.
It was kind of subtle at first. I would call him to go for a walk and there just wasn’t the enthusiasm there anymore. I noticed that he wasn’t eating as much as he once did and it took him more effort to get up from lying down. I though maybe he had worms or something else the matter with him so I took him to a veterinarian. I told the doc about Speedboat’s symptoms and the vet asked me how old he was. It took me a little while to calculate that we had been together more than eleven years. The vet said, “You know big dogs like St. Bernards don’t have a real long lifespan”.
I took my buddy home. The vet had given me a sheaf of directions on how to care for older dogs and he told me that he thought Speedboat was just naturally wearing out. I followed the vet’s instructions. I gave him vitamins and pep talks but he grew more listless by the day. Within two weeks we were back at the vet’s but this time I came home alone.
So, when I read the story about Finley Long I knew exactly how Finley’s dog felt.