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Crossing a line from innocence to adulthood

by Marilee Swirczek

“We’ve forgotten a lot of the monsters that seemed to live in our room at night. Nevertheless, those memories are still there, somewhere inside us….” –Fred Rogers, 1983

“Do you recall the moment when you crossed the line from childhood to adulthood?” I asked my writing students. For me, it was in the summer of 1958.

One afternoon that summer, a red dog, coat matted, limped out of the dark woods surrounding our little neighborhood in northwestern Pennsylvania. He climbed our back steps and sat politely outside the screen door as my family ate supper. When one of us caught his eye, he turned away as if to stare at something in the yard, but we figured he was embarrassed to beg for a handout.

After supper, my sisters and I took him water and table scraps. He ate with quiet dignity, his manner belying the desperation we saw in his protruding ribs and shaking legs.

He was still there in the morning, so we rallied the neighborhood gang: the Korpa boys – Billy, Bobby, and Michael; the Maschgan girls – Lu and Sissy; and us, the Rocco sisters – Marilee, Sandi, and Toni. I was the oldest, at 11, the first destined for junior high in September.

We named the dog Dingo and voted to keep him.

He was Rin Tin Tin when we played army, Lassie when we needed saving. A natural for the lead in our production of “Old Yeller,” he lay still while Billy shot him with a stick-rifle. We cried real tears at rehearsal, and Dingo licked our faces.

Dingo escorted us through the woods, where we picked blackberries and elderberries and caught tadpoles in the creek. With him padding ahead, we ventured deep, finding toadstools and fairy circles, and smooth, white mushrooms that looked like skulls pushing up through the earth.

We picked Queen Anne’s lace for our mothers, who never suspected how far we ranged with Dingo as guide and sentinel. Without him, we might never have walked all the way to the Shenango River, where we threw sticks into the sluggish summer current and imagined a world beyond our neighborhood, beyond our town.

One morning we decided to explore a dense section of woods that, as lore had it, contained bottomless pits of quicksand and harbored bobcats that could snatch a kid and disappear into thin air. We armed ourselves with sticks, told our parents we’d be playing at the creek, and set off, mildly guilty. Dingo took the point. We followed, a platoon of small soldiers.

When we found the old sawmill, fallen down and overgrown with brush, we knew what we had to do. For the next few weeks of that waning summer, we hauled huge planks of lumber closer to home, cleared a space in the woods, and built a shack – not just any shack, but the last shack we would ever build.

In August, we invited our parents to a house-warming party. We threw potatoes into a fire-circle and served them on sticks. Even Dingo ate one. Our fathers tested the roof; our mothers checked for spiders. Mrs. Korpa brought a gift – a blue collar for Dingo.

Autumn approached, and with it a sadness I couldn’t pinpoint. I often broke into tears for no reason. Mostly I sat alone in the shack, listening to the wind and watching the daddy longlegs in the corners. Dingo chased rabbits and checked on me, poking his head into the semi-darkness, panting, until I said a word to him, and off he whirled, returning again and again. Change was in the air, as my father would say, and I sensed that it wasn’t just the passage to fall.

As I look back, it seems right that the only aurora borealis I ever saw happened that summer. We were catching fireflies, our flashlights shining long beacons into the night sky, when the aurora blossomed above us – pink, violet, gold – luminous and frightening. The breeze stilled, like the moment before a tornado when the air seems sucked away.

Suddenly Dingo bolted and ran in crazy circles, careened into our neighbor’s yard and dashed around their prized beagle in a wild dance. The beagle ran hard to the end of its chain, again and again, baying and yelping.

The next morning the dogcatcher knocked on our front door. I ran out the back door and into the woods with Dingo. All the kids showed up; we would hide Dingo in the shack.

Soon the beagle’s owners arrived with the dogcatcher, who held a noose. We kids lined up with Dingo behind us. The dogcatcher looked at me then, the oldest. “I have to take him,” he said. “Maybe I’ll keep him myself.” I watched his face, the color of dark coffee, eyes deep-set and soft, and I knew he was being kind.

I felt as if I were on a tightrope: On one side was me wanting to believe the kind dogcatcher; on the other side was me knowing the truth. I grabbed Dingo’s collar and walked out of the shack, the other kids following, trusting me to save our dog.

I took the long way home to buy time. Maybe I could make a break for it across the highway to the Amish farms, or chase Dingo away, or promise to keep him chained. But it was a lost cause.

When we got to the house, the dogcatcher raised the back door of his truck. Inside were cages, stacked one upon the other, empty. I watched myself as if from afar as I turned, bent down, and put my arms around Dingo. He gave my face a quick swipe with his tongue. I stood up and walked to the dogcatcher, who dropped the noose and took Dingo.

Dingo never struggled as the dogcatcher put him into a cage and removed his collar. Dingo’s eyes, brown and serious, never left mine as the cage door closed, and he watched me until the truck door slammed shut.

That September, Billy burned down the shack. I went to junior high, made friends, tried lipstick when my mother wasn’t looking, fell in love for the first time. No one ever blamed me for giving Dingo up to certain death. I prefer to think that the kind dogcatcher really did keep Dingo, and that Dingo lived a long life, remembering us kids in his dreams, as I remember him and that last summer of my childhood.

Marilee Swirczek is collaborating with WNCC colleagues on an anthology about women and their dogs. This article is condensed from her essay, “The Long Way Home.”