Over Easy: We could all use a new top dog

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 7/24/2020 9:59:30 PM
Modified: 7/24/2020 9:59:26 PM

What America needs right now is a wonder dog. Where is the loyal canine who could save us from bandits and runaway locomotives, not to mention COVID partiers and mask scofflaws?

I have been thinking about this because I just finished Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend of the World’s Most Famous Dog, by Susan Orlean. For me, a former boy who dreamed of a loyal and brave canine sidekick, it was, pardon the expression, like catnip.

I rescued Rin Tin Tin (the book, not the pooch) from the Little Free Library outside the Kilton Library in West Lebanon. It helped me during a rough patch this summer — nothing dramatic, just a lack of something good to read. Such is a crisis in our household.

And what a story! Rin Tin Tin was an actual dog, an orphaned German shepherd puppy found near a World War I battlefront by an American soldier. That soldier, Lee Duncan, had a hard childhood, including several years in an orphanage, an upbringing that can leave an ache in the heart.

Rin Tin Tin to the rescue! Duncan and the dog bonded, and Duncan sensed his new pal was something special — smart, eager, athletic. (He reportedly could jump a 12-foot fence. Don’t try this at home.)

Against the odds, Duncan managed to bring Rin Tin Tin home on a troopship at war’s end. After seeing a silent movie about a heroic dog, Duncan thought Rin Tin Tin oughta, as they used to say, be in pictures. By luck and pluck — which was a thing then — he made it happen.

Rin Tin Tin became a silent film star; a couple of them can still be seen on YouTube. The dog nicknamed Rinty made a comeback in 1947 in The Return of Rin Tin Tin. Boomer alert: It also featured child actor Bobby Blake — later Robert Blake, star of TV’s Baretta and eventually an accused murderer — and can be seen on YouTube or streamed elsewhere.

Duncan promoted Rin Tin Tin’s career not for money, but because he thought the dog represented something timeless and good. The opening line of Orlean’s book is, “He believed the dog was immortal.” Of course, Rin Tin Tin was not, really, but his descendants carried on and eventually other dogs filled in when Rinty’s line included a couple of duds.

Rin Tin Tin became not just a dog, but a character, not to mention an ideal. He was handsome and tough. When bad guys deserved it, he snarled and grabbed them by the pants leg. He could fight off a pack of wolves, something beyond the capacities of your typical pug.

He became a huge star again in the 1950s, when The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin hit the little screen, a series about an orphan and his dog adopted by a cavalry troop in the West. That’s the Rin Tin Tin I saw as a boy (and is now showing on YouTube — consult your family copyright attorney before viewing). He overshadowed the dogs in my neighborhood, a pack of mutts with unseemly secret lives.

Life has grown complicated today. It’s not realistic to think a hero dog could save the day, although my inner boy would like to think so.

“Rinty — Dr. Fauci’s in trouble. Help him!”

“Woof,’’ Rin Tin Tin would reply, and dash off to Washington. I’m not sure what he could do, but he could at least lick the good doctor’s hand and offer a comforting paw.

Maybe my faithful companion could bark out my debit card pin if I forgot it, or find my ever-wandering phone, which would be a great service. I could imagine him dashing to the convenience store for Ben and Jerry’s, if they had canine curbside service.

Meanwhile, humans are failing us left and right. Divided Americans keep separate lists of villains. The airing of grievances is practically a national obsession. Then there are the people at the very top who were supposed to provide guidance about opening schools but have left local officials a grab bag of maybes: Keep 6 feet apart, or maybe 3, if you can; improve the airflow, if that works out; ban crowds, unless you can’t. Be safe! Good luck!

Dogs, on the other hand, would not let people down. As others have observed, they think better of us than we do of ourselves.

The New York Times recently had a lovely feature story about therapy dogs working in children’s hospitals. Soon after, I noticed an old guy driving around in a pickup truck with a little dog on his lap. I usually disapprove of such violations of the motor vehicle code, but maybe to him that dog is indispensable.

That dog certainly thinks the man is, and there is some wonder in that.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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