His Name Was "Rebel"
Updated: Aug 28
My mother had no interest in getting another dog, as not much time had passed since our companion of many years, Bullets, had been killed by a car on Route 130, not far from our house on Lincoln Avenue. The painful event was still fresh in her mind.
Bullets had been an integral part of our family since my father had brought him home from the dock in Camden, New Jersey, where he worked as a shipping and receiving clerk. He had found the pup, shivering against a building, and carried him home in a cardboard box stuffed with newspaper to keep him warm. My father and Bullets – named by my brother in homage to Roy Rodgers’ dog, “Bullet” – were inseparable. He walked him every night after work – no leash needed – and Bullets slept at the foot of my parents’ bed, despite my mother’s protests. She had grown up in rural Georgia, where dogs slept outside.
Even so, my mother was curious when Mrs. Perkins, whom we knew from church, invited her to come over to her house and see the litter of puppies that her dog had just delivered. This was because the Perkins family lived right next to Route 130, very near where Bullets had been killed. Was it possible that these puppies were Bullets’ offspring? That might explain why he was hanging around this dangerous highway.
So after church one Sunday, my mother and I walked the five blocks to the Perkins House on Marion Avenue. There on the living room floor we found six tiny puppies, mostly black with white and light brown markings on their faces. There was simply no denying it: Bullets had been spending time at the Perkins residence.
My mother had to admit the puppies were adorable – and yes, they looked an awful lot like Bullets, but we walked away without one. She was just not ready. At dinner that night I lobbied my father, a true dog lover, to weigh in, but he said it was mom’s decision. My sister Barbara and I promised that we would paper train the dog and walk him every day – my mother wouldn’t have to do anything. But she stood firm.
A few days later, I came home from school to find a tiny puppy in a cardboard box on the kitchen floor. Apparently, my mother had had second thoughts and, with a little encouragement from my father, had given in – one of the few times I can remember my mother actually changing her mind about something or, more accurately, anything.
My father suggested we call him Rebel, since my mother had picked him out of the litter and she was, thanks to her Southern roots, a “rebel.” The name stuck. And as promised, Barbara and I walked our new puppy every day, sometimes many times a day – so often that Rebel was totally worn out by evening and just curled up in his box and slept. But after a few weeks, the novelty wore off and walking Rebel became my father’s job. He didn’t seem to mind.
Like Bullets, Rebel became an integral part of our family. He typically slept at the foot of my bed, keeping my feet warm in the winter. In the summer, he did not like the noise of the huge Westinghouse fan that I placed next to my bed, directing its tornado of air directly onto my face. (Our house did not have air conditioning back then and sleeping upstairs in July and August was simply intolerable without the fan.) But Rebel would choose to find another place to sleep, often the basement, where it was cooler.
In time, I discovered that Rebel had a few quirks, and I exploited them, teasing him unmercifully. For one, he would not eat his food, placed on the kitchen floor, if the exhaust fan above the stove was on. (He hated fans!) I would get up from the dining room table during the meal and go out to the kitchen to turn on the exhaust fan. I recognize now how cruel this sounds, but I loved seeing him back away from his bowl and look up at me with those sad eyes. When I clicked the fan off, he would devour his dinner, hoping he could finish before that damn fan started up again.
I also discovered that Rebel saw the vacuum cleaner’s flexible hose as an enemy, perhaps a snake. I would detach the hose from the vacuum and run it under the sofa so it was just peeking out from below the cloth skirt. From the other end of the hose, I would make low growling sounds which would come out menacingly at the other end. Rebel would go crazy, barking and lunging at the exposed end of the hose. Just when he thought the “snake” had been killed, I would start up again. So much fun!
Barbara and I also discovered, pretty much by accident, that we could set Rebel off with a toy called “Time Bomb,” which we found in a pile of junk at the bottom of the dining room closet. This was a hard, black ball, about the size of a grapefruit, with a wind-up key at the top. When the ball was wound up, it would make a ticking sound – like a time bomb you’d see in a cartoon – and after a minute or so it would “go off” with a bang. While it was ticking, Rebel would attack the ball, pushing it frantically around the room with his snout. When it finally detonated, he would bark at it in a frenzy. Looking back, I am not proud of this teasing, but aside from the kitchen exhaust fan, Rebel seemed to enjoy it.
After I went off to college, I did not see Rebel much, only occasionally when I stopped back at home for a weekend. On one such occasion, in 1971 I think, I remember standing at the upstairs window in my bedroom on the second floor and seeing Rebel out in the front yard. He was circling slowly, apparently trying unsuccessfully to go to the bathroom, making a pathetic, moaning sound, He appeared to be in great pain, and it was hard to watch. It occurred to me that he was getting up in years and that he might not be around the next time I stopped back at home.
My father said that Rebel was in bad shape, and that he was going to take him to the vet. He suspected that Rebel might have cancer. There was a good chance that our beloved dog wouldn’t be coming home with him, so I might want to say my goodbyes. I was very sad; I had loved this dog since the day we got him in late December of 1963. I gave Rebel a tearful, final hug.
A few hours later, while talking with my mother in the living room, we saw my father pull up out front in the Plymouth Fury. Looking out the window, I was expecting to see him lumbering up the front walk with hunched shoulders and Rebel’s dog collar. Instead, I watched as he opened the back door of the car and Rebel bounded out like a young puppy.
It turned out that Rebel did not have cancer. He had a ham bone lodged in his rectum. The vet had been able to remove it, freeing Rebel up to empty his bowels. Instant relief! And, apparently, a new lease on life, because Rebel would live for many years after that.
More than 47 years later, in 2018, I bumped into my old childhood friend, Stephen Birchard, at my 50th high school reunion. After graduation, I had lost touch with Stephen, who had moved to Ohio and would become a very successful veterinarian. He would eventually be the chief editor of the Saunders Manual of Small Animal Practice, which is still today the “bible” of veterinary medicine and consulted all over the world.
At the reunion, Stephen pulled me aside and said he wanted to tell me an interesting story. In 1974, while spending the holidays back at home, he was attending a funeral service in Pennsauken and found himself standing next to my father at the open casket. “You know,” my father said to him, “Some people actually look better laid out than when they were alive.” Stephen thought this was a strange comment to make at a viewing, and he never forgot it. In fact, he told me, he has repeated that story many times.
Of course, this little tidbit has nothing to do with Rebel. But this part does:
Knowing that Stephen was in veterinary school, my father asked him if he’d be willing to stop by at the house after the viewing; something was wrong with Rebel.
Stephen was able to see what the problem was immediately. Rebel had obviously been chewing a ham bone – yes, a ham bone again – the kind that is a perfect circle, or ring, at the center of a ham slice. He had somehow managed to slide this ring of bone onto his lower jaw. It was stuck behind his canine teeth and was completely encircling his jaw behind the chin.
Stephen – or as I should probably refer to him now, Dr. Birchard – recalled that while my father held Rebel, he pulled the skin of Rebel’s lower jaw back, toward his neck, keeping it tight while carefully wiggling the ring off the mandibles. The bone slipped off without too much trauma and he was as good as new.
Stephen confessed to me at the reunion that at the time, he had never seen anything like that – after all, he was still a veterinary student. But in the years since, he had seen this problem a number of times and actually shared this story with his students as an example of how to safely liberate dogs from the dreaded jaw ring bone.
My father told us about the ham bone, but he never told us that he had asked Stephen to come to the house to assess the situation. I think he was too embarrassed to admit that he didn’t want to spend the money for a “real” vet. (He was notoriously tight with a buck, except when it came to Eagles tickets.) Stephen told me at the reunion that my father did offer him a couple of bucks, but that he had declined the offer; seeing Rebel bound away from him in glorious freedom was payment enough!
I am sorry to say that I don’t remember when Rebel died. By then I was married and teaching English at the local middle school. Like too many sons do, I had grown a bit distant from my parents and had a dog of my own, also long gone.
But even now, I can feel in my mind Rebel’s warm body curled up at the foot of my bed on a cold winter night. It occurs to me that he was not just a dog, but perhaps my best friend ever, who somehow knew when I was sad or hurting and was always there for me.
I regret that I was not there for him when it was time for him to go.