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With a Pit Bull on My Knee

A fiercely loyal pet can’t overcome his base instincts

An old friend and I were discussing Texas literature one day, and I submitted Old Yeller by Fred Gipson as one of my 10 favorite Texas novels. My pal said he’d never read the book and stayed away from the movie, as well.

His explanation: “I ain’t going to read no book where no dog dies!”

If you haven’t read Gipson’s Old Yeller, or seen the film, sorry for the spoiler.

Old Yeller was the first Disney movie for kids without a happy ending—a daring move at the time. Besides, everybody’s first dog dies. The details differ, but the basic story ends the same.

In my case, I have to explain that my first dog was a pit bull with a personality that helped give the breed a bad name. We named him Cisco in honor of my favorite television show of the day, The Cisco Kid. The Cisco Kid and his trusty sidekick, Pancho, rode the frontier fighting evil and injustice.

In my view, Cisco the dog did the same thing.

My dad picked Cisco out of a pound in Birmingham, Alabama, because the black ring around one eye reminded him of the dog on the RCA record label “listening to his master’s voice.” Dad didn’t know Cisco was a pit bull until a vet broke the news to him a couple of weeks later.

Even then, 50 years ago, pit bulls suffered from a public relations problem, as the breed of choice for people who are entertained by betting on which of two dogs will rip the other to shreds. As a preschooler, all I knew about pit bulls was that if anybody messed with me, Cisco would make them cry and run away.

By the time Dad realized that Cisco seemed aggressive occasionally, it was too late. Cisco and I bonded immediately. So I rode to Texas from Alabama in a beat-up 1949 Kaiser with a pit bull on my knee. Mom and Dad in the front seat. Me and Cisco in back, where I serenaded Cisco for miles with a Roy Rogers guitar and my rendition of Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog.

The first time I did it, Cisco joined in with backup vocals—a mournful howl—just as I finished the line, “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine!”

Then he rolled over on his back and clawed the overhead upholstery until it dangled in jagged shreds.

A state trooper pulled the Kaiser over somewhere north of Lubbock because the beat-up old jalopy with out-of-state tags and its upholstery all ripped up came to what the trooper called “a rolling stop” instead of a complete one. When the trooper reached inside the car to hand the warning ticket to my dad, Cisco lunged at the patrolman’s arm, missing the fleshy target by only a tooth’s length.

The officer reeled backward and touched his holster for a moment. “That’s a bad dog you have there, mister!”

“He’s had a rough trip,” Dad explained. “Besides, he’s very protective of the boy.”

Yes, Cisco was very protective of the boy—me—but he was the opposite of that with almost everyone else. Mom he tolerated because she managed the supper dish, but even Dad got no credit for rescuing Cisco from the pound. Friends of mine were no friends of Cisco, either. Cisco didn’t appreciate the recreational innocence of childhood activities like wrestling and tackle football, which looked to him like an assault on his kid. We had to chain him up when friends came over.

Bad deal. Broke my heart. Broke Cisco’s spirit.

When Mom told me that she and Dad had decided Cisco had to go, I told them that was fine, but I didn’t tell them I was going to run away with Cisco and live off the land—a boy and his dog, wild and free.

Old Yeller was a troublemaker, too, and the family was going to get rid of him until he saved one of the young ’uns from a bear attack.

Cisco bought himself some time by grabbing me by the seat of my britches—not to drag me around the yard for fun like he often did—but to keep me from running into the street to retrieve a ball a split second before a speeding Buick would have hit me. Mom witnessed the whole thing from the front porch.

“The dog stays,” she told Dad. The matter was settled.

Old Yeller’s fate was sealed when he fought off a rabid wolf and got the “slobbering fits”—hydrophobia or rabies—and later had to be put down after he growled and snarled at the same young’un he’d saved from a bear attack.

Cisco’s fate was sealed when he overreacted one day after I tried to push his supper dish back from the edge of the porch. Cisco saw an arm going for his supper dish, and he bit it. Hard. All of a sudden my arm had these little holes in it, and some of them were bleeding.

Cisco pulled back, whimpering. I think he knew that was the end of the line.

The truck that came to take Cisco away was, in my mind, bigger than any truck ever built—about the size of a B-12 bomber. My parents asked me to be brave and not to cry, but when that monstrous truck showed up and the animal control people wrestled Cisco into the back, and Cisco started whimpering, I broke down.

Just like people always do when they read Old Yeller or see the film.

And just for the record, Cisco would have run off that bear and whipped that wolf, too.

Clay Coppedge, a member of Bartlett EC, lives near Walburg.