As a child growing up in Lindenhurst … on the south shore of Long Island … we had a dog … a mutt, really … named Ranger.
Ranger, Lindenhurst, mid-1950’s
Ranger’s mother … Lucky … wasn’t. She was hit by a car and killed not long after Ranger’s litter was born … and they weren’t even weaned yet … my mom had to hand feed them until they got big enough to eat on their own.
I was five at the time … and given my choice of which of the puppies we would keep … I picked the runt of the litter … and named him Ranger, after the lead character of a children’s TV show that I liked to watch … Ranger Joe.
Ranger became my faithful companion from then until I left home to go to West Point 13 years later … other than school, he went pretty much everywhere with me … and particularly enjoyed loping along next to my bike when I did my paper route … and running along with me when I did laps around the block as training for cross-country and track.
Eventually, he got too old to do the running … instead, he would lie on the grass in front of our house … and follow me with his eyes as I ran by each time.
Despite his small size, Ranger was fearless … too fearless, as it turned out. One day in March of 1964, he was with my mom and two younger sisters as they walked to the neighborhood grocery store. A much bigger dog came out of the Narrangansett Inn, a local restaurant and reception hall … thinking the dog was coming after his humans, Ranger ran to intercept him … and got into a fight which resulted in injuries so severe that he had to be euthanized.
Mom called me at West Point to give me the news … and I cried myself to sleep that night.
But, that isn’t the main point of this story … which is really about the dog I fell in love with three years later and who was going to be my next “Ranger”.
My Aunt Ethel and her family lived in West Babylon, not far from where we lived in Lindenhurst … and I visited there frequently after my family moved to California in mid-1964, shortly after Ranger’s death. They had a female dog named Queenie … and, coincidentally, she had a little of puppies in April 1967 … just a couple of months before I was due to graduate from West Point.
In my journal for May 6, 1967, I wrote that I had picked up Jessica Poulson, who I was seeing at that time, and then … “we drove out to Aunt Ethel’s. Queenie had her puppies. I picked out one for me — it’s all black with 4 white feet, a white-tipped tail, a white ring around its neck and a white face.”
I had just that week also finished reading Boris Pasternak’s book Doctor Zhivago … and Jess & I went to see the movie based on the book that same night. I decided that I would name the puppy Yurochka … the affectionate name that Larisa Antipova calls Yuri Zhivago … and then ended up calling him Yuri for “short” (even though in Russian Yurochka is the diminutive of Yuri).
On Saturday, June 3rd, Jess and I were back on Long Island … and I picked up Yurochka …
With Yuri, June 3, 1967
… to take back to West Point with me for a few days. In retrospect, he was probably a bit young to be separated from his mother … but he enjoyed the visit … particularly sleeping with me on my brown boy (our plush comforter). Needless to say, it’s a good thing no one in authority saw him there in my room!
We graduated on June 7 and I spent the first three weeks of graduation leave hanging around with family on Long Island and visiting with high school friends and teachers … while Yuri was back at Aunt Ethel’s with his mom.
Yuri had the run of my Corvette
On June 28th, I finally left New York … driving to Washington DC, where Yuri and I stayed at a Holiday Inn. The next day, I visited the Pentagon and confirmed that I would have a few weeks temporary duty at the Pacific Mine Force headquarters before going to the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, in the fall … then on to Saigon, Vietnam, in November.
While driving, Yuri would sit in the passenger seat … or, if I had the top up on my Corvette, would lie on the convertible top cover, just behind the seats. When in the passenger seat, he was too small to see over the doorframe or hang his head out the window … so I usually turned the vent window in so that wind would blow on him while driving.
The third day of our trip, June 30th, Yuri and I visited my high school track teammate George Brown in North Carolina … then went on to Merritt Island, Florida, to visit with my best friend from high school, Jim Clark. We spent five days there, then on July 5th started the drive across the South … headed for Memphis, Tennessee, to visit with my West Point roommate & best friend, Jim “JO” Vance.
On Friday, July 7th, JO and I had dates with two sisters who lived in the Whitehaven section of Memphis … my date that evening was Sandy Douglas … and, as they say, the rest was history …
… regarding which, see…
After two days in Memphis, Yuri and I headed to Oklahoma, where I hoped to see my former girlfriend … Candy Sayes (ah, yes, a whole other story for another time). I was able to visit with her and her fiancée, Joe Davis, for about an hour … then drove down to Lawton, where I planned to see another of my West Point friends, Norm St. Laurent, at Fort Sill.
After visiting with Norm, I decided to drive straight through from Oklahoma to California … in part because I didn’t have any friends living between the two. On Tuesday, July 11, I got on the road about 8:00 am and drove until 3:00 … slept on the side of the road for about an hour … then hit the road again.
I stopped again about 10:00 and called home, then decided to continue driving until I got home … which I expected to do about 2:30 or 3:00 am. For most of the trip from Oklahoma to California, I was driving on either I-40 (which was not yet complete) or the old Route 66 … which connected the completed sections of I-40 at the time.
Shortly after midnight, I stopped in Barstow, California, for gas … I had the top up and Yuri was sleeping on the convertible cover behind me … I pulled up to a pump, got out and began pumping gas.
Perhaps a minute later, a woman from another car at the station asked me, “Is that your dog?”, while pointing toward the highway. I turned to see where she was pointing and saw Yuri … just as he was hit by a car speeding along the highway.
I immediately ran out to Yuri … and when I got to him, knew instantly that, although not yet dead, he would be soon … I picked him up and carried him back to the car … by the time I got to it, he had died.
I wrapped him in my lightweight West Point grey jacket … borrowed a shovel from the gas station attendant … and took Yuri out into the desert to bury him. I dug a hole about three feet deep … laid Yuri in it … and filled the hole. The driver of the car never even stopped.
The rest of the drive home took about two-and-a-half hours … during the entirety of which I was crying so hard that I had trouble driving … and which makes me cry even now thinking about it. My mom had stayed up, waiting for me to arrive, and I fell completely apart when I got there.
To this day, I do not know for sure how Yuri got out of the car … the convertible top was up … and the windows were up high enough that I don’t think he could have wiggled through the opening of either window. The only thing I could … or can … think of is that he must have awakened as I opened the driver’s door, then jumped down onto the seat and out the door behind me as I closing it.
However he did it, it took just a matter of seconds … no more than two or three … and, because I was concentrating on pumping gas, I never saw that he was out of the car until it was too late.
It is nearly 49 years since Yuri was killed, but the guilt I feel over his death burns my heart every time I think of it … which is still often. My journal entry for that day ends with the comment, “He trusted me so & I let him down in the worst way possible.”
I was motivated to write about Yurochka by the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo which resulted in the death of the silverback gorilla Harambe … and the resultant outpouring of animus and vitriol toward the mother of the child who got into the gorilla enclosure.
To the Christians among the vocal critics of the mother, I commend Matthew 7:1-3, King James Version (KJV):
1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
In other words, clean up your own act before you judge the actions of others … and once you do, perhaps it would be best to help those others, rather than judging them.
Or John 8:7 (KJV): He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
In the context of the gorilla discussion, it is a certainty that everyone, without exception, has at one time or another, been distracted in such a way as to lose track of a child … even a small child … for a short period of time. Most people are lucky in that nothing untoward happens during that momentary distraction … the Cincinnati mother … and I … were not so lucky.
Apparently, the Hamilton County, Ohio, prosecutor will announce tomorrow whether or not he is going to file criminal charges against the boy’s mother. The legal standard in Ohio for filing charges is whether or not she acted “recklessly” or created a “substantial risk” to the health and safety of her child.
Factual circumstances likely to play a part in the prosecutor’s decision include the child’s background and any history of dangerous behavior, risk factors at the zoo, and … perhaps most significantly … the length of time that the child was out of the mother’s direct sight and why.
A few more pictures of Yuri
Yuri (in the bushes) & his brother, Little Caruso
Yuri, Little Caruso & their sister, Little Queenie
My sister Suzie & Yuri
Suzie & Yuri Snuggling
Three Dot … 127