(Over 850 blog posts and no stories about dogs? This post is way overdue.)
Gabriel is my first dog after I graduated from college, started working at Bell Labs and moved out of an apartment into a house I shared with my friend Jim. He had a beautiful Irish Setter named Shannon. If I got a dog, they could keep each other company. I worked days and Jim worked nights, so the dogs would have plenty of human company, too.
So what kind of a dog did I want to get? I wanted something energetic and active, big enough to run with. This was 1980. Want to do research? You go to the library. It didn’t take me long to decide on a Labrador Retriever. I had seen black ones before, but now I knew they also came in yellow. That’s what I wanted.
OK, so where do you go to get a yellow Lab? This is 1980. You look in the newspaper, under pets. Sure enough, there was an ad for yellow Lab puppies at a home somewhere in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey. I made a call, got directions, and headed out to pick a pup from the litter. I had a map, too. This is 1980. That’s how you navigate.
When I arrived, some kind folks took me down to their basement where about a dozen six week old yellow Lab puppies were running around a large enclosed area. I sat down in the middle of them and let them run around me, on top of me, in and out of my lap. Some chewed on my fingers, some watched carefully from a distance and some wrestled with each other. I learned from my research to watch the little for a while, to tell who was most aggressive and who was most shy. I picked one out that wasn’t the craziest, but seemed to have a good amount of energy. The owners marked a number on the tummy of the one I picked, and I would be able to take him home in a few weeks when he was weaned.
I named him Gabriel and I am pretty sure he cried all the way home. I’m pretty sure he cried all night, too, as pups do in their new home. But he quickly adapted to his new place. In those first few months, of course, he chewed out the backs of most of the shoes we owned, chewed up a few candles he got his teeth into and went through a bunch of rawhide.
Gabriel lived up to his retriever breed, naturally fetching anything and everything we would throw around the yard or out into the water of a nearby lake. On one occasion, he came back with a swan by the neck rather than the stick I had thrown! Had I been a hunter, I am sure he would have enjoyed retrieving ducks.
A couple of years later, I moved to Austin, TX for a new job offer. Gabe comfortably rode in the back of my Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel hatchback as we headed out for a new adventure. I rented a pretty nice house in Austin, just a few miles south of the capitol building, and just a short run from what was then called Town Lake (Now Lady Bird Lake). My work hours were such that I had to leave Gabe home alone for a long time each day, so I made sure we went for a run when I got home. Once we got across some busy streets and onto some lake side trails, I could let Gabe off his leash and he would run along side of me, or our ahead of me, or in and out of the water next to me. Four, six, even eight miles later, I would be tired but he would be ready for more.
If some folks were playing frisbee in the park, Gabe would join them even if uninvited. He would leap up and grab it midair, proudly bringing it to me. He could get some pretty good air!
Gabe was a strong swimmer, churning through the after to go after a thrown ball or stick, almost leaving a wake behind him. He would spring from the land and sail out across the water before splashing in and powerfully dog-paddling out and back. He loved to get wet, even in the cold. To this day, I call any cold, rainy day “Labrador weather.”
Before that year was out, though, I had decided on a career change and was headed for the seminary. Unfortunately, dogs were not welcome in the dormitories, so Gabe would go to live with my dad for a couple of years. Dad was a dog lover, had a great fenced-in yard and even built a house for Gabe. Gabe and my dad’s dog Barney had a great time chasing balls and squirrels together.
When I met a classmate’s sister, who would later become my wife, one of the first things she noticed on my bulletin board was a picture of Gabriel. With a good looking dog like that, she knew I must be a pretty good guy! Gabe knew she was a keeper, too. When my wife-to-be came to Philadelphia to meet my parents, he not only welcomed her but climbed up in bed with her, too.
After our wedding, my wife and I headed for Baltimore for my vicarage year. Inner city life would be very different that what either of us had experienced before, so having a big dog along was a good thing. In fact, on one of our first days in our house, Gabe had pinned a repairman up against the wall to protect us. I had never seen him do that before! He didn’t do that often, but it was reassuring to know he could.
We got a companion for Gabriel that year, a chocolate Lab named Rachel. She was much more docile, just as good of a retriever, and had a beautiful shiny brown coat. Our two dogs were quite popular in Baltimore. Every day after school, kids from the neighborhood would be knocking at our door, asking, “Can we play with your dogs?” Dozens of kids would then chase our two Labs around our small yard. Everyone had such a great time.
I would take Gabe for runs with me early in the morning. Good exercise for him, and good protection for me to and from a nearby park with great running paths. During those runs, I discovered that Gabe had a sixth sense when it came to balls. We would be trotting down a path when suddenly, he would break for the woods of weeds on one side of us, and come out with a baseball or tennis ball. Somehow, he just knew it was there, and that it was there for him to take home. At home, he would chew the cover off and unravel all the string inside.
After vicarage, we moved back to the seminary for one last year of study. We had a house to live in and I put up a wire fence around the yard so the dogs could be outside. Winter was extremely cold that year, and the dogs provided much needed warmth in bed at night.
We moved to Connecticut after graduation for my first call in the ministry. The church was small, but they provided a huge house on four acres of property, a paradise for dogs who loved to run and fetch. I had a five gallon bucket of baseballs and softballs. I would hit them out into the yard and woods from our driveway for Gabe and Rachel to retrieve. We always let them run free, which sometimes meant they would be way off in the woods. But when I whistled from the back door, I could see them coming through the tall weeds of a nearby field, usually pretty muddy or dirty.
Our scariest moment came when my son was about two years old and eye level with Gabriel. Gabe felt assertive one day and snapped at him, scaring all of us. It was completely unexpected and reminded us to closely supervise their interactions.
Once Gabriel got hold of a tennis ball, he sometimes didn’t want to let it go. When he was especially stubborn, I would insert a broom handle behind the ball in his jaws and pick up up with it. He would not let go if he didn’t want too Other times, I would stand about 10 yards in front of Gabe and throw the ball as hard as I could right at his head. He would catch it in his mouth every time.
When we moved to Iowa to serve a new church, Gabe was about eleven years old and had mellowed out. Our much smaller back yard was fine for him. We went for walks rather than runs.
As often happens with Labs in their teens, Gabe spent a lot more time sleeping on the couch and had a lot less pep. Finally, when he just couldn’t keep much food down, our vet felt a mass in his abdomen, and we knew Gabe’s time was up. He was almost fifteen and would always be the dog we would compare all our other pets to. I don’t know that I have ever bawled the way I did the day I came back from the vet without him. My daughter Katie hand drew a little book for me, to commemorate Gabe’s life and cheer me up. It still brings a smile to my face.
Just a few months later, Rachel would develop a limp which would be diagnosed a malignant tumor in her leg. Our time with her would be over, too. But we would not be dog-less for long. Michael would be next, and that’s a whole different story!