Friday, August 3, 2012

The Summer of Laskie

The summer of Laskie was a season unlike all those that came before and after it. Laskie was a collie, a dead ringer for Lassie, the star of the much beloved TV series. There was a time when Lassie was perhaps the most recognizable character on television. She was courageous, encouraging, loyal, could warn a person if gramps fell down the well, and knew a hundred tricks. Lassie maintained all the characteristics of what a person hoped their best friend possessed. Of course, we were always let down by our friends in one way or another, but not by Lassie; she would always be there, barking her encouragement.

Laskie was Duane Noddin's dog. Duane worked with Laskie til she knew a hundred and one tricks, one more, he claimed, than Lassie. He liked to tell people that Laskie was the dog who showed Lassie everything. After making a few successful appearances with Laskie at local Chicago schools and shopping centers, Duane decided to capitalize on the heels of the Lassie craze and take Laskie on the road. I, of course, the owner of a faded-red Dodge van nicknamed "The Eraser," was chosen as driver, assistant, and general dog walker. The profits from the venture were to be split fifty-fifty; he had the dog, I had the van, an unmitigated, symbiotic relationship if there ever was one.

Laskie loved to travel. Her favorite spot was the passenger seat where she could stick her head out the window and sniff the subtleties of the road. Whenever we started the van, she'd bark as if calling "shotgun!" and hop into her seat. We drove back and forth across America, stopping in cities and small towns everywhere. Laskie performed her many tricks for gatherings of appreciative crowds at store openings, car dealerships, roadside diners; anywhere that would have us. Sometimes the establishment paid us to attract business and other times we passed the hat. We sold eight-by-ten glossy photos of Laskie with a stamped, paw-print autograph. It quickly became apparent that people heard and saw what they wanted; most people ignored the "k" in Laskie's name and walked away thinking they actually witnessed the TV Lassie. Invariably, upon leaving, children and adults alike would wave goodbye while shouting, "Goodbye Lassie!"

During Laskie's performance, it was my job to work the crowd, telling people all sorts of fantastic stories of Laskie's exploits and rescues. And the more outlandish the story, the more entranced the crowd became. Throughout the summer, Laskie chalked up a remarkable resume: rescuing people from burning barns, wrecked cars, swimming out to stranded boaters, and pushing teenagers out of the way of oncoming trains.

They say that behind every great celebrity, there's a prevaricator of humongous proportions. And that was me, the Titanic of liars. It seemed my duty to make up more and more stuff heralding our sweet wonder dog. While driving between towns I spent most of my time thinking of different scenarios that would further Laskie's status as the heroine she'd become. It was an adventure not to be forgotten.

The other night I was at a dinner party where all twelve guests were discussing their travels to Venice. They conversed in a restrained, but emphatic, manner about the Venetian experience. Apparently, Venice brings out the transcendental National Geographic in people. A few even presented pictures of their trips, and one couple had a photo book made of themselves posing in front of every significant landmark in Venice. The one-upping of Venice was a never-ending crescendo of expository fawning. I sat silent for an hour or more, listening patiently to the testimonials. I'd never been to Venice as its never been ballyhooed as a van-friendly city.

Towards the end of the evening, after running out of saucy gondolier anecdotes, someone asked if I'd ever been to Venice. "No," I said, "But long ago I spent a summer with a certain celebrity collie, Laskie, traveling the country as her handler."
A rare silence bloomed over the Venetians. "Oh, I loved that show as a child," agreed a few. Clearly, they heard "Lassie," as had those who'd gone before them.
"Yes," I went on, the lies pouring out of me as they had so many years ago, "I saw that remarkable dog pull someone out of the water in the rapids above Niagara Falls, and once, on the Golden Gate bridge, she stopped a woman from jumping to her death. She understood five hundred words of English and could place an order at any Mexican restaurant by planting her paw on the menu near the word "burrito." And she had her own barking language that only a few people knew about. There was no dog like her."

"And," I added, "I asked her once if she wanted to see Venice, and she barked twice, very loudly, which meant a definite 'no!' So that was that and the subject was never brought up again, unless you count the time she chewed up the venetian blinds in a motel room in Biloxi, adding a distinct punctuation to the question."

Switching gears during the puzzled silence, I complimented the hostess, "The custard pie is terrific. If you don't mind, I think I'll have another piece in honor of Laskie. She couldn't make pies, of course, but custard was her favorite." It's difficult to put on the brakes when the room is finally yours, even if only for a moment. Laskie knew all too well about the ephemeral spotlight, her season of notoriety, or as I like to call it, "The Summer of Laskie."