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When Cape Cod dogs lived differently

Seth Rolbein
Seth Rolbein

Many of us have dog stories, dog relationships. One amazing thing we learn is that dogs live full lives within a compressed bracket of ours; we join them as puppies, share time as they mature, witness them grow old, then wish them goodbye.

This life cycle is one of many things they offer us, and teach us.

My first Cape Cod dog showed up in a great Cape Cod way. Forty or so years ago, after my birthday in September, a handful of friends trucked north to Great Island in Wellfleet to walk off a hangover. Coming along the beach was a young woman with a pack of dogs. Two were hers, three she had rescued because summer people leaving the Cape come Labor Day had abandoned temporary “pets,” an ugly practice back then.

A shaggy black and white pup had one ear that stood up, alert brown eyes. That was Bucky, and we took him home.

Cape dogs had more license then than they do today (though Bucky never had a license per se). That suited us because we encouraged free spirits.

We lived in Orleans on Town Cove, so he would slip down to the water and come back muddy, then embark on a late afternoon trot to the back door of a nearby restaurant where the chef saved him a bone. Bucky would come home all proud, bury the bone in the backyard, and forget about it.

I got nervous about his roaming so took a cement block, tied a stretch of rope to it, and hitched it to Bucky’s collar. The next day, coming home from work, I saw him in town dragging the cement block. I tried a fencepost, a tree; he chewed through the rope, sitting and staring at me when I got home, making clear that his location was his choice, not mine.

We kept a canoe above high tide and at day’s end I’d paddle to a little island where mussels set so thick the water turned black, tie a rope from the canoe around my waist, jump out careful not to cut my feet, and get us a nice dinner.

Bucky would jump out too, make his way to shallows, then begin diving face-first, musseling. He’d come up with soaked hair flattened over his eyes so he was blind until he could wobble back to shore and shake out. Usually he had a rock, sometimes a brick or even a mussel.

Seth Rolbein
Seth Rolbein

At the time I was playing a lot of tennis at my buddy Tommy’s house; two sets, two beers. Bucky would come with me, roaming around a cranberry bog. I’d keep half an eye on him until mid-way through the second set when it got as serious as it was going to get, and I’d forget about him. That was his cue to vanish.

My sister had a house on the back side of Rock Harbor, and I’d drive over there and he’d have beaten me to their doorstep. To do that, he had to cross Route 6. How? Sneak around the rotary? I never figured it out.

Seth Rolbein
Seth Rolbein

When he no longer was moving, barely eating, we made the devastating decision to put him down, as they say. I had been carrying him around and did so for the second-to-last time, to the car. The vet met us in a parking lot and it was a sad, humane end.

I drove back to the Cove and picked him up one more time. Here’s the amazing thing:

In my arms he felt completely different than how he had felt moments ago.

Why? What was different?

The only thing I can say is his spirit had departed.

I wrapped him in his favorite blanket, and buried him. A grape arbor also planted there is laden come fall when I stop by around my birthday.

That was a dog’s life and dogs don’t have much chance to live like that on Cape Cod anymore -- though mine still does.