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  • It seems like a long time ago but it was only some time in 1968. Like most years, 1968 was packed with activities because it was the year of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive, the Olympics in Grenoble, Planet of the Apes, the student riots in Paris, the shooting of Andy Warhol / RFK / MLKJr., the White Album, and Laugh-In. I was a ten-year-old prone to emotional trauma. I was trying to grow up in Fort Smith, Arkansas and was already plotting my escape to somewhere that might be more civilized and culture. My father worked in an office and this was a big deal because his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all worked in gas stations and another grandfather worked on his own farm so working inside at a desk was a Very Big Deal. Out of respect for this leap in the family’s social / economic revolution and his own vanity, Dad was always well dressed, especially for the time and place. He wore suits and wingtips and long-sleeved shirts and, for a while, a fedora. He was an accountant at a furniture factory and he had a small office that was over-air-conditioned and smelled of pipe tobacco and pencil shavings.

    The factory was with all the other factories, down near the river that separated this part of Arkansas from Oklahoma. It was bleak near the river, all grown up with weeds, bugs and snakes and pollution from the factories that lined the river and fewer than one hundred years ago, there was the seat of a federal circuit court and federal prison by the river and “Hangin’ Judge Parker” used to order the execution of outlaws that crossed back and forth between this so-called civilization and the Indian Nation on the other side of the river. Fort Smith was rather like the Check-point Charlie between the United States and the Indian Nation of what would become known as Oklahoma after the few Indians who had survived the Trail of Tears from Florida to there had another generation of promise between them and the US were broken. All this is explained in the books and movies that share the title, True Grit. Both movies were filmed right there in Fort Smith. The gallows in Fort Smith is famous because it was the only federal gallows that served six at a time. The gallows isn't used for hanging any more – honest - but the Park Rangers in charge of the gallows paint it bright white every spring before it gets too humid for the paint to dry right. It looks as respectable as a gallows can look to the tourists waylaid on their travels to someplace interesting like Tulsa to the West or Memphis to the East. Elvis was alive back then and lived in Memphis at Graceland. Just on the other side of the river from Fort Smith is Moffett, Oklahoma where restless young men looking for trouble can gamble, buy beer and find the type of women who trade their charms for money and Moffett, Oklahoma is officially and permanently off-limits to all military personnel to this day. You can look it up.

    Anyway, on his way home from work, Dad would stop and visit with Jack and Effie Crosland and sometimes I'd be along. Dad wasn’t really eager to get back home back in those days. Jack and Dad would smoke a few cigarettes and Effie would feed Dad a piece of pie left over from the previous evening. She made wonderful pies, pecan pie, black-bottom pie, apple pie, banana cream pie, McKinley pie, ... and cobblers too. Dad was generous with his praise for Effie's pie, more generous than Jack was, so she felt good about Dad eating her pie. And after a piece of pie and a cup of coffee, Dad and I would come on home.

    For a long time, Jack and Effie had a Mexican Chihuahua named Timmy and he’s the only Chihuahua I’ve ever know so I don’t have a big sample size but Timmy impressed me as very high-strung. When people came into the house, no matter how many times they had been there before, Timmy would yip and yip and yip and carry on something fierce. At first, it was comical to see such a tiny dog work himself up into such a huge expression of anger, but after a hundred times, it was annoying and made my head hurt. Dad liked to tease people, children and pets and enjoyed making Timmy mad. So when Timmy would rush at Dad, yipping at the tip top of his thimble-sized lungs, Dad would make Sudden Threatening Movements. Timmy was tiny but not stupid, and when something outweighing him by ~320 pounds makes Sudden Threatening Movements, Timmy became even more alarmed and agitated and would run away and tremble.

    Dad and Jack thought it was funny.

    Effie didn't care for it because she was very fond of Timmy. It was her dog.

    (A friend of mine who has some time on her hands these days because she's going through chemo is a dog breeder and I've been meaning to ask her to find out why mankind invented the Mexican Chihuahua because I just don't see the point of that type of dog at all. A mastiff, sheep dog, Labrador … these are useful dogs. But other than yipping, I can't figure out what a Chihuahua is good for and I can't imagine mankind deliberately making something like that without a point. My friend reports that the Mexican Chihuahua was invented to chase, find and kill things underground and I think this explains a lot.)

    Anyway, Dad soon bored of making the same old Sudden Threatening Movements and was inspired to add a new torment to Timmy's life. When Dad dropped by one afternoon, and Timmy greeted him at the door, Dad took off his fedora, held it by the crown and stood very still, inviting Timmy to come closer and closer. Eventually, Timmy got bold enough to set up yipping right beside my father's ankle. Dad closed his right eye and carefully aimed that fedora as if he was the bombardier in a Flying Fortress. Dad’s fingers released the crown and that fedora dropped so that Timmy was completely covered by the hat from head to so-called tail. Well, Timmy might have been agitated before, but once Dad’s hat fell on top of him, Timmy became apoplectic. Timmy's entire word became dark and smelled of Vitalis and Timmy wanted to be anywhere other than where he was, so he started running.

    Of course, from our point of view, it looked like Dad's fedora had become possessed by a zany, animated spirit. That hat dashed about the floor, crashing into that table leg over there, this chair over here and, finally the wood-paneled wall Dad had help Jack install. Dad and Jack laughed so hard Dad couldn't eat any pie that afternoon which was just as well because Effie had a hissy fit and wasn't in the mood to show any kindness towards Dad. (I had a slice of Blackbottom.) Of course, Effie's reaction meant that Dad was even more eager to do the same thing the next day because it was if he had stumbled upon a two-for-one special: He could tease Timmy and Effie at the same time. So, he repeated the hat-drop routine the day after that and the day after that. –And he would eat at least 2/3s of the pie Effie served me since she gave Dad the cold shoulder after that. Remarkably this didn’t seem to be too hard on Dad's fedora.

    But one day ended up being the Last Day. Months and months had passed and Dad had ensured that these were not easy months for Timmy who developed grey hair mixed in with his brown coat. One afternoon, Dad stopped by to see Jack and Effie and Timmy ran up to attack Dad and Dad took off his fedora and Timmy was yip-yip-yipping and for the umpteenth time Dad dropped the fedora over Timmy and ... nothing.

    No yipping. No running around. Nothing that turned into an uncomfortable silence.

    Dad instantly knew that only one thing could have made that dog stop yipping: Th grip of the strong, cold hand of death around that poor little dog's heart and this was exactly what had happened. Timmy had suffered some sort of cardio-neural overload / shut down and died right where he stood, covered by Dad’s fedora. Timmy was dead.

    We were still the best of friends with Jack and Effie. Jack and Effie had two boys: Jack, Jr. and Ricky. Dad taught Ricky how to tie a tie because Jack, Sr. was an electrician and didn't have to get dressed up for work and Effie tied Jack's tie on Sunday Mornings. Dad taught Ricky how to tie a full Windsor, half Windsor and a four-in-hand. Years later, Ricky got married and we went to watch. He married a Catholic girl which was a Very Big Deal for Fort Smith's Protestants. Jack, Jr., suffered from a very bad case of manic depression and the family had some very hard times as Jack, Jr. started to disappear and then re-appear after ending up in too much trouble someplace. I don't know what became of Jack, Jr. and don't really care to ask, but Jack, Sr. got help for his own manic depression and was OK again until he got diabetes really bad and the doctors amputated his legs at the Veteran's Hospital in Little Rock. Jack, Sr. had been a spotter and a machine gunner in PBYs over the Pacific in World War Two so they took real good care of him. Whenever I came home from wherever I had wandered off, I'd visit Jack and Effie and Effie still fed me pie. Then Jack died. Effie lived on for a while but died a few years later. Like Jack and Dad she used to smoke too, like a chimney, so it came as no surprise to me when she started had trouble breathing and it turned out to be emphysema. Their boy Ricky is well dressed runs a couple of department stores named Sanger Harris in Texas.

    After Mom and Dad's divorce, Dad got to keep Jack and Effie for friends. Jack and Effie never got another dog and Dad gave up wearing fedoras when the fashion changed. And the sight of little Timmy when Dad lifted his hat off of him has stayed with me for more than forty years.

    And all of this is true.
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