I turned eighteen in the spring of 1968. That was a controversial time in our country’s history. But my family has a long tradition of military service, so I enlisted in the U.S. Army on the very day of my majority. I was due to ship out to basic training in early June. By late May, many of my classmates had already begun to go, and I too was ready. I had said my good-byes to all but my closest friends and family. But right up until the time of my departure, I continued to do my chores around our farmstead near Pikesville, Tennessee. I didn’t mind the work. But more than that, I enjoyed the opportunity to spend some time with my little brother Caleb. And with my childhood companion Old Shep. Looking back, I realize now that Caleb and Shep were my best friends. Over the next few years, I was going to miss them.
Old Shep was getting old, so my father had taken it upon himself to get another pup for the farm. Our neighbor’s female had whelped a litter of farm shepherds from the same bloodlines as Old Shep. And like Shep, the entire litter of pups had a glossy black coat, a tan spot above each eye, and a tan bar across the chest. Dad brought one of them home, and the pup immediately took to my little brother Caleb. Caleb and the pup were off playing near the tree line one day when I heard the pup bark. When I looked up, I saw a dark shadow, low to the ground, moving like lightning towards my little brother. It was a wild hog, a male by the size of it. He was charging ahead, swinging his head back and forth, low to the ground with intent and purpose. The pup was making a lot of noise, but he was small, young and no match yet for the adult wild animal. When the boar reached my brother, he gored him in the left leg. Caleb immediately fell to the ground with a scream. Right away, there was blood soaking through Caleb’s pant leg. Before I could even react, Old Shep was half-way to Caleb. In another split second, he placed himself between the boy and the hog. Almost immediately, Shep took a hard blow to the side. It knocked him down and he yelped, but he got right back up and persisted to defend my brother. Shep took another blow to the neck, and this time he started bleeding. By the time I was able to retrieve my rifle and shoot the beast, Shep had taken a bad beating. He’d lost a step in his old age, but what he lacked in speed he made up for with courage. He saved Caleb from taking any further injuries, but at great cost to himself. And so, the day before I shipped out for Army basic training, I buried Old Shep down by the creek. A pile of stones to mark his grave.
In the Army, basic training went by in a blink and then jump school went even faster. The next thing I knew, I was doing my first tour in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. A lot of the guys in my platoon had photos of their sweethearts from back home, but I carried a photo of me and Old Shep. His memories kept me company during those dark nights in the jungle, and his heroism motivated me. Towards the end of my first tour, I took some shrapnel to the leg. The wound became infected, so I was shipped over to an Army hospital in Tokyo. I recovered there and then returned stateside. My stint in the Vietnam war had come to an end.
When Caleb picked me up at the bus station, it took me a minute to get used to how much my little brother had grown up. He’d made a name for himself playing football. So much in fact that he’d received a scholarship from the University of Tennessee. I was very proud of him, even though I had been hoping we could spend some time together. But I’ve learned that after you leave home, things never go back to the way they were, no matter how much you’d like them to. Before he left for school, Caleb brought his dog to me. The pup was full-grown now, bigger even than Old Shep had been in his prime. Caleb told me that he didn’t think he’d be heading off to play college football if it wasn’t for Old Shep. And he informed me that before Shep died, dad had taken him over to sire that litter of pups at our neighbor’s place. So, this dog was Shep’s son from that litter. I told Caleb I’d be happy to care for his dog while he was away at school, and so from that day on I did.
A few years later, I saw an ad in the Rutherford Courier placed by a man named Blankenship. The dog in the ad looked exactly like my Old Shep. So, I headed over to the Blankenships’ farm near Christiana, Tennessee. There I purchased a registered female English Shepherd from Mrs. Blankenship. She was a good dog, so I bred Old Shep’s son to her and continued on the bloodline of the farm shepherds from my childhood. Today I still keep these same dogs, although several generations from the first Old Shep. They’ve become harder to find, though I couldn’t say why. From my back porch, I can still see that spot down by the creek where I buried Old Shep. I keep that pile of stones there trimmed up and well groomed. My wife even painted a nice marker for it. And there are a few more piles of stone down there now, too. I like to have a cup of coffee in the morning and remember those dogs. I watch the sun come up over the rocks and warm them. The heroic, loyal old-fashioned Black and Tan English Shepherd will be the only dog I’ll ever have.
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