‘Just a boy and his dog’

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I spent a lot of time with my dad when I was growing up. We did chores together – milking, feeding, cleaning out the barn, making wood, harvesting crops, etc. He taught me many useful skills that were helpful in my adult life. And I was able to pass some of those skills on to my sons in our summer painting business.

Dad had a great sense of humor and an ability to tell a story that I always admired. He also had for making monotonous jobs easier by singing. He loved “The Red River Valley” and several other old favorites, but I think his No. 1 song was a tear-jerker called “Old Shep.”

“When I was a lad and Old Shep was a pup, Over hills and meadows we’d stray. Just a boy and his dog, we were both best of friends; We grew up together that way.”

When I was a “lad” my dad used to sing that song a dozen times a week while we were doing the milking or working in the fields. Dad wasn’t a great singer, but he loved to sing, and he put a lot of heart into his renditions. A couple of weeks ago, as I was looking for something else on the internet, I came across a recording of “Old Shep” by Elvis Presley, and, boy, did it take me back! I listened to it about 15 times in a row.

The song told of Old Shep’s heroism: “I remember the time at the old swimming hole, When I would have drowned beyond doubt. But Old Shep was right there; to my rescue he came, He jumped in and helped pull me out.”

But it was a very sad song, too, because as Old Shep got older, he started losing his eyesight and the veterinarian told Jim, the speaker in the song, that there was nothing he could do for Shep. So Jim picks up his gun to euthanize the dog, but he just can’t do it. “He came to my side and looked up at me And laid his poor head on my knee. I stroked the best friend that a man ever had. I cried ‘til I scarcely could see.”

“Old Shep he has gone where the good doggies go, And no more with old Shep will I roam. But if dogs have a heaven, there is one thing I know: Old Shep has a wonderful home.”

What a great old tear-jerking song! A boy and his dog, growing up together, and the boy learning some great lessons in life.

We never had a “Shep.” We had a Bing, a Sparky, a Ginger, and probably a few more dogs whose names escape me now. They were great dogs, mongrels all, and none of them ever proved to be as heroic as Shep in Dad’s song.

My sister and I did a lot of things together, but there were times when I’d just go off by myself with whatever dog we happened to have at the time, and I’d have “adventures” – almost totally imaginary, of course, because I wasn’t a particularly adventuresome kid.

But the woods and the cedar swamps on our farm near the Oconto River were inviting, quiet places to spend an afternoon, and with a dog along, what could go wrong, right? If I were to have an accident or the bad guys got to me, the dog would certainly drag me out of the swamp or run Lassie-like to get help, wouldn’t he?

Well, luckily, no such real adventures occurred, so I never knew for sure if any of our dogs had that heroic characteristic, but I’m pretty sure that they did. After all, I’d heard Dad’s song about Old Shep so many times that I assumed all dogs were like Old Shep.

I’ve listened to Elvis’s version of the song several times since I found it, and each time it’s made me smile. Want to hear it? Check out this website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SE8Y_hc4A5Y

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.