The alarm clanged to life at 2 o’clock in the morning. It was loud, right outside my bedroom door. I was 6 years old, living in a small frame house on Henderson Street in Fort Worth. It was 1960 and to my young self, the world was like a giant wide-open candy store. I really saw nothing to complain about. Bad things didn’t seem to happen to us, not that I heard about anyway. But we didn’t have alarms buzzing at 2 in the morning.
The alarm that went off wasn’t a fire alarm or any security system. Those were rare in the 1960s. This was our dog alarm system. Our what?
The neighbors who lived to our north, Cliff and Helen, were, as well as neighbors, close friends. Helen was from down New Orleans way and when her sister came to visit it was a time for celebration and for some Louisiana cooking, the likes of which I’d pay darn good money to experience again. You think you’ve had good red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo or green beans? Think again.
Cliff was a vet, like my father. He was a former Marine, if there is such a thing, and only had one leg, I assume the result of a war injury. I asked my mother once and she thought he had an accident with a train. She also said it wasn’t polite to ask, so I didn’t. He was tough, of course. Even with one leg, he drove a manly manual transmission, rigging up a lever on the left side of the steering wheel so he could clutch while changing gears (three-on-the-tree) with his right hand. Tough as he was, he was a soft touch, often taking me down to the Trinity Park duck pond to feed the ducks when I asked. He’d watch me feed the ducks while he puffed away on his unfiltered Camels.
He also kept his lawn shipshape and so smooth you could putt on it like it was the Masters. He would get down on the lawn with his one leg stretched out in front of him, clippers in his hand, a Camel ever present, and slowly make his way around the lawn in a ceaseless search and destroy mission to clip every stray grass stalk or – heaven forbid – a weed. He mowed using a motorized reel mower that pulled him along, helping to make up for his missing leg. I feel sorry for the people who followed him owning the house. Anyone who drove by who knew what Cliff’s lawn looked like could only shake their head at the decline and fall of that Roman Empire that was the pristine ,glistening-green sheen of Cliff’s lawn.
Cliff and Helen did not have children, but they had a dog they spoiled rotten, Mitzi. They were inconsolable when Mitzi died, burying her in the first pet cemetery I had ever heard of. Shortly after Mitzi’s passing, they said they were too distraught to get another dog.
As a result they began “borrowing” our dog, Princess. Princess was a black and white rat terrier and they would call in the afternoon and ask if Princess could come over. We’d let Princess out and she would excitedly prance next door, knowing a treat or two or three was in store. This was in the days before we knew what “therapy” dogs were. The joy written on their faces when Princess was in their midst made it evident even to a young kid like me how important she was.
Like most people of the Greatest Generation, my father was a handyman and he would often be called on to help neighbors with various projects with his massive collection of tools, used mechanical parts and such. Also, as a child of the Depression, my father never threw anything away. Any spare nut, bolt or nail would be salvaged, then categorized into its proper bin. The bins themselves were usually 1 gallon oil cans that had their sides cut open so they could be used like metal drawers. My dad would then paint – with his trademark glowing yellow paint – the size of the bolt, screw or nail on the side of the drawer. Container Store, be damned. A hoarder? Don’t judge. He made all the kids in the neighborhood sidewalk surfboards from spare parts he found laying around and we were all thrilled; skinned knees and busted elbows, so what?.
So I wasn’t surprised one Saturday afternoon to see my father, up on a ladder, stringing a wire from Cliff and Helen’s home across the driveway to ours. Projects were hardly unusual.
“What’s that for?” I asked my mother.
“We’re putting in a bell for Cliff and Helen to let us know they want Princess to come over without having to call on the phone,” she said. She explained that they could just flip a switch, the bell would ring at our home and we could let Princess out to go over.
Sounded reasonable to me. My mother talked on the phone – a lot. I don’t know what she would have done if she’d been born in a time before Alex Bell got the world wired up. So it made sense, if they wanted the Freud of dogs for company and my mother was on the phone, sure, why not a bell?
I told the kids at school about the dog bell proudly, thinking it demonstrated once again the ingenuity – and slight wackiness – of my parents. What will they think of next?
I saw it in action, time and again. R-r-i-i-n-n-g-g! Door opens. Dog let out. Door opens at Cliff and Helen’s. Repeat.
I did raise a question, however. Whenever the bell would ring, instead of instantly opening our door and letting Princess trot over for belly rubs and treats, my mother would call Helen and make sure she wanted Princess.
This made no sense to me. Wasn’t the whole point of the bell to avoid the phone call? Well, adults often did strange and illogical things, I was savvy enough to know that. This might be another one of those “adult” things I didn’t quite comprehend.
I also found it odd that the switch – a common light switch – wasn’t out in the open in Helen’s home, but was behind a big calendar on the wall in their smoke-saturated home. Helen smoked Kents, filtered. So they don’t accidentally set it off, it was explained to me. Oh, of course.
So, when that dog alarm suddenly sounded at 2 a.m., I jumped out of bed laughing, as I saw my mother frantically calling a number on the phone.
“Why,” I said, giggling almost uncontrollably, “do they want Princess this early in the morning?” I couldn’t wait to tell this hilarious story at school the next day. They weren’t going to believe it. A dog call at 2 a.m.? Whoever heard of such a thing? My friend Ray thought my parents were kind of nuts anyway. Now, I had a gut buster of a story to tell. “You’ll never believe what happened last night …” Oh yeah, milk was going to be shooting out of Ray’s nose like twin fire hoses at full blast.
My parents were frantic, running around, looking out windows. Finally, my father, who I had observed speedily donning pants and shoes, crashed out the front door and ran next door.
I repeated my question as I walked around in my Roy Rogers pjs with a grin on my face at the hilarity of it all. How was I going to capture all this chaos for Ray?
My mother finally stopped to address my question, as well as my no-doubt annoying laughter. “They aren’t calling for Princess, Cliff and Helen are having a fight and we put the bell in for her to call us if there’s trouble.”
Mother then returned to dialing our rotary phone. I don’t know how long I stood crestfallen, absorbing this new information as my 6-year-old brain updated itself. That bell wasn’t for the dog, it was for those mysterious adult matters that we children weren’t privy to in the ‘60s.
Before long, red and blue colored shapes danced around the walls of our living room through the blinds. Johnny Law was here. The seriousness of the matter took shape in my first-grade gray matter. Princess had been a pawn in an adult game. So had I.
Later, when I was told that Cliff and Helen were getting a divorce, I asked why and my mother explained that sometimes people didn’t love each other anymore. It was, I could tell, not a subject she wanted to elaborate on to an inquisitive 6-year-old reporter in waiting.
Still later, when Cliff moved back in and the lawn returned to its crisp, tight-cornered military precision, I asked my mother why he was back. “They decided they loved each other,” she said, obviously tiring of this line of inquiry. My mother could cry instantaneously when something was sad – or happy – it didn’t matter. These kinds of questions were not welcome.
Unlike me, Princess was oblivious to the adult drama swirling around her. Sure, she missed out on a treat that night. But no doubt, Pavlov-like, whenever that bell went off she was back salivating, ready to provide some therapy in exchange for some treats. The odd, early-morning bell was soon forgotten for her as things returned to a treatastic normal. And, I guess, in the end, her therapy worked, as Cliff and Helen stayed married until they died, spoiling our other dogs along the way, grieving with us when they passed away.
Me? I learned an early lesson, that in the world of adults, things are rarely clear as a bell.
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.