The recent loss of my dog, as traumatic as it has been, has turned my thoughts towards Texan author Bob Howard and the story of when he lost his own dog, a part Walker foxhound/part collie who he named Patches (sometimes the dog would be referred to as ‘Patch’). Bob raised the dog from a puppy and the two were inseparable companions for some twelve years (there’s another weird irony of fate- Patch quite likely passed away at the same age as our Barney did, if later recollections of the event are correct). The story has it that as Patch grew old and sickened to die, Bob left town and did not return home until the dog had passed away and been buried. When he returned, Bob only remarked on his dog once, when he queried his mother as to where Patch had been buried. The story has been discussed and debated by Howard historians over the many years since Bob’s own death (at his own hands prior to the imminent death of his mother). His inability to deal with the death of Patch, and how he later reacted to his mothers passing, have obviously been linked and debated.
For my part, fan as I have been for most of my life of the writings of Bob Howard, the story of his short life has always been fascinating, and like many I have often pondered on how he reacted to the death of his dog. Initially there was the inevitable thought that it was only a dog, that it seemed a strange thing to do, just get out of town like that and leave his pet. But of course, back then when I thought that, I didn’t have a dog of my own. Having lived with a dog some twelve years with all the companionship and everything that that entails, I obviously now appreciate the pain that Bob was going through as Patch sickened to die. In a way, I now feel closer to Bob Howard, the man, than I did even a few months ago, and I appreciate also how his reaction, leaving the dog, infers some indication of how Bob reacted to such painful situations. ‘Leaving’ the dog- some would rather refer to it in stronger terms, as deserting the dog.
On Thursday when we knew Barney was very ill and we arranged to take him to the vets, it was pressing on us how it would likely be one last, final trip. I finished work early and drove home dreading what was coming. When I got home, Barney was in the kitchen, lying in his bed, which was something he never did. It was as clear an indication to me as anything just how ill he was. I sat down on the floor next to him for some twenty, precious minutes, aware that as the clock turned close to five pm I would have to pick him up and take him out to my car. Obviously I was terrifically upset. I kept glancing at my watch, wishing time to slow down, stop, anything other than reach the fateful time we would have to leave. “I don’t want to take him,” I told Claire. “I know we have to go, but…”
But we did, and things turned out the way we expected, albeit not exactly- a cruel twist of fate yet awaited us, as Barney would pass away in my car on the way back from the vets, after we had been given a cruel false hope. But it occurred to me, even as I sat on that kitchen floor next to Barney, that Bob Howard had obviously felt the same terrible pain and anguish as I was feeling. Bob however couldn’t see things through. He got out of town. I could never do that with my Barney, I owed him that, I had to do what was right for him, and stay with him to whatever terrible end was ahead. Even while I can appreciate the pain Bob was going through, I think he was very wrong to abandon his close companion, leaving his own parents to deal with it. Bob was twenty-two years old; Patches death was obviously a major blow, but his reaction to just flee from it rather than deal with it, live with it, speaks volumes of how he saw suicide as the only option at his mothers imminent death some years later.
On Friday, we buried Barney in our back garden, where he spent so much time in his younger days playing fetch with his ball or just roaming around, taking the air. I think burying him was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Bob couldn’t manage that. Had he been able to stay with Patch, take care of him later on regards his burial, would he later have the life-experience and strength to better deal with his mothers death?
Was he weaker than me, for not being able to stay with Patch at that desperate time? I don’t know. But yes, I think there is a clue to his psyche, his character and his eventual suicide, by how he dealt with the loss of his dog. I mean no criticism of Bob- he did what he simply felt he had to do when he realised Patch was soon to die. We all deal with death and the loss of loved ones in different ways. We cannot judge Bob Howard, only try to understand him. We cannot truly ‘know’ someone who lived and died some seventy years ago. But it is inevitable that we try, particularly when, as I have, we have read his stories for so many years.
Scholars have often concluded that Bob was subject to his upbringing and how sheltered he was by his parents from some of the harsher realities of life. The curious thing about it all, is that Bob at twenty-two had lived through Texan Oil booms, had experienced much death and violence. His father was a town doctor, and Texan Oil towns could be hard and bloody at times, desperate places to spend a childhood. Bob’s stories are full of violence and gore and horror, and yet he was evidently hyper-sensitive, unable to cope with realities harshest truths, such as the death of his dog. The contradictions of Bob Howard are endlessly fascinating.