In the early fall of 1962 Bubba Kepley, Lamar Cope and I drove to Managua, Nicaragua from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in a 1950 Willis Jeep and trailer. Our first big adventure was a rainy night down in a snake infested Mississippi creek bed.
Two days after that death-defying bit of bad judgment we were in small town in east Texas. After parking the trailer in a local RV park, we headed to a beer joint wearing our Myrtle Beach evening-out clothes: madras Bermuda shorts, polo shirts and loafers without socks. An old codger sitting next to me at the bar volunteered that we looked queer, a sentiment he thought bar customers would probably express in a more Texas way when the regulars began to arrive within the hour.
We thought the old codger probably knew best about what was acceptable east Texas attire so we paid for our beer and as we were starting to leave, I told him that we were on our way – driving a jeep – to Central America.
“Well in that case here’s some more advice. Get a dog. Get a mean ol’ junkyard cur. Don’t get no pet. Get a guard dog. A war dog. You know all those pictures you see about an ol’ prospector walking along the desert in Mexico with his donkey. Well they don’t draw the dog for some reason, I don’t know why, but I tell you I know for sure that folks out this way had dogs to go along and protect their stuff. You need a dog.” He took a drag off his cigarette.
We gathered ‘round… and with a rapt audience the old man continued… “Like say you get south of Mexico City and you three want to go into a place and eat or get laid or whatever, what’s going to happen to your stuff out there in your truck? Windows ain’t going to stop no greaser from getting inside. They’re going to just walk up, break that back window with a rock and get in and get whatever they want. The first place, I guarantee you, I god-damned guarantee you, the first place you leave that truck alone it’s going to be cleaned out. Unless you got a dog. Get a mean dog, leave him in the truck. No Mexican’s going to bother your stuff. They don’t like dogs a’tol.” He paused and took another drag from his cigarette. “Go change clothes and then get a dog. But you better get out of here now … but you know I ‘d certainly appreciate a beer before you leave.”
We stopped in the first town we encountered the next day and asked for directions to the local dog pound.
There a woman met us at the door of the warehouse-type building. She looked suspiciously at our jeep/trailer rig as Lamar explained that we were looking for a watchdog for our trip down to Nicaragua. A traveling companion in a sense, he explained.
Dogs were barking in the background as she continued to look at us. Finally she said she had a mutt that she was going to have to euthanize next Tuesday that might be what we were looking for. It wasn’t suited for being a pet dog. Too mean.
We said that sounded like just exactly what we were looking for, a dog that was too mean for most people. As we followed her around the side of the building, Lamar looked at me and mouthed, “Euthanized?”
The dog pen area had a concrete floor and smelled of poop and disinfectant. Dogs were in small fence enclosures in pairs. They barked and yelped at us as we walked along toward the back. The last pen had only one dog who sat back in a corner and showed no emotion as we approached. Its tail did not wag. Its eyes, set deep in a blocky face, were not friendly. I could sense it tense up as the lady put her hand on the door handle. One of its ears was torn from fighting and small gnats were swarming around it. Mange had taken off some of the hair from one of its back legs.
Laying in the half light in the back corner of the pen it looked dangerous and forbidding. We agreed that that was almost exactly what we were looking for. “Yes sireee, that’s our dog.”
The woman said that we could have it. I was standing closest to the pen. As the woman opened the door I began to move in toward the newest potential member of our team.
The dog growled. Without moving. The growl came from deep within, a mean, no nonsense, no bluffing, do not come into my pen, sound. I stopped, keeping slightly behind the pen door and slowly dropped to one knee. I made a friendly clucking sound. The dog continued to growl in a low, deep tone. It then raised its upper lip, barring its fangs. Its green and deadly eyes were menacing.
Lamar said that our dog was gooooood. I suggested that he might want to go in and get it then, because it appeared the dog didn’t think as highly of us as we did of him. Lamar told me to ease on in. He thought sticking my hand out for the dog to smell might be a good gesture. This made more sense to Lamar who was standing some distance away than to me.
I turned slowly and gave him a look that said as much, but then, I don’t know why, I slowly stuck my hand around the pen door. The growling became deeper, louder. The dog displayed its fangs, gums, all its teeth, its ears lay back on its head. It slowly began to get to its feet. Gettin’ in a crouch.
I withdrew my hand and the dog lunged for the door. I fell back as the woman slammed the door shut. We all stood back as the dog barked angrily at the wire, foam coming out of its mouth. Lamar put out his hand and the dog jumped in Lamar’s direction, gnawing at the wire. Lamar, I and the woman looked at one another. I said again that yes sire, this dog was just what we were looking for. But we just stood there looking at him snarling at us.
Bubba was back by another pen. We asked him if he wanted to come join us and say something to this dog; he said no. I told the lady that this dog was probably the best one for us, but then…. maybe we might want to look at the next best dog.
Down the row of pens, Bubba said we should take this dog so we walked down to him.
He was petting a puppy. A large, lanky, smiling, wet tongued, tail-wagging puppy. We explained to Bubba that this dog needed someone around eight years old to look after it. A better choice was almost any other animal in the place. “Like that rat there,” Lamar said, pointing to a yapping Chihuahua dog in the next pen.
Bubba’s dog looked up at each one of us in turn and then back to Bubba. He barked a friendly little bark and sat there thumping his tail on the floor. Bubba said this was the dog. Sometimes you have to pay attention to the road signs of life, he said, and this dog was pounding out a message that he belonged to us. Wanted to go Lewis and Clarking with us.
Bubba said he felt an intergalactic connection with this animal when he first walked by. This was our dog. We could get another one, wouldn’t be the right one, but if we did, we’d have two, because this dog, Bubba said, he knew absolutely for sure, was the right dog for our trip.
This from a guy that used to sell shoes.
We asked if Bubba had divined a name for this beast and he said he had, the dog’s name was “Dog.” Well, we agreed, that was simple and direct. No question about who you’d be calling. Bubba opened the door to the pen and “Dog” stood up on his hind legs trying to lick his face. The woman smiled.
The puppy was in the back of the jeep with Bubba as we pulled out from the pound. He put his head out the window, almost closing his eyes as the wind blew his fur back. Bubba said we’re a team of four now, stronger than before, better able to take on the elements and see down the road.
We pulled back into the gas station where we initially asked directions. A Mexican attendant filled up the jeep with gas. He looked at the dog without emotion. Later, driving down the road, the dog upchucked on one of my packs. We stopped to clean it out and Bubba put a leash around the animal’s head and led him off in the distance where he peed.
Bubba told him he was a good dog, which prompted Lamar to remark that Bubba had never complimented him or me on how we peed. What did the dog do to get a kind word? And why were we cleaning up the dog’s mess when Bubba is out walking around?
Back in the jeep Lamar and I discussed means of making the dog grow up fast, so that we could get some guard dog use out of him this particular trip we were on, versus, say, a trip we might plan in five years. I suggested that we should ask the gas station attendants, who we had noticed were almost always Mexicans, to roll up a newspaper and hit the dog when we pulled in for gas. The reasoning here was, I explained, that the dog would come to associate Mexicans with being hit and once we get him to make that association, then it’s just a small step to get him to bark when he sees Mexicans approaching. The dog, possibly because he overheard our conversation, upchucked on the floor in the back again.
Early the next morning we were deeper into Texas. When we pulled into a gas station Lamar asked the Mexican attendant if he would help us with a little something, like hitting our dog with a rolled up newspaper. Dog at that time had his head out the window looking at us, breathing heavily with his tongue handing out. The Mexican said, “No way, amigo, you’re loco.” We paid him a couple of dollars and he agreed to do it, though he said we were still crazy. He walked up to the jeep with the rolled-up newspaper behind his back. The dog saw him coming and began to wag his tail. His eyes were smiling. The man turned his head, still keeping the newspaper hidden, and looked at us, then back to the dog and then with all his strength he swung the newspaper and slapped the dog hard up side of his head. The dog yanked his head back inside the jeep and scrambled to the far corner of the back where he cowered. The Mexican flipped the newspaper into a trash can and began to pump gas.
Lamar, Bubba and I looked at one another. We suddenly didn’t like the Mexican much at all. It wasn’t necessary to hit our dog that hard, we thought. We spoke up, telling him that he hit the dog too hard. He said he was trying to give us our money’s worth.
Back in the jeep we found the dog had peed in the corner where he had sought refuge. Later he came out, became friendly and stuck his head out the window as we drove along. We pulled into another service station and asked the Mexican attendant to hit our dog, lightly. It was a training technique, we explained. He complied without further prompting. The dog peed in the back again.
The next service station we pulled into the dog saw the attendant talking with us, so he went to a back corner and started peeing.
Mid-afternoon as we were driving along, I said that I had done a lot of hunting with dogs growing up and I remember hearing someone, maybe an old codger who lived near our house, say that if you fed a dog gunpowder, it would make him mean. Lamar and Bubba didn’t say anything. We all knew we had some shotgun shells.
I said we could just empty a couple or three out into the dog food. After eating it, Dog would get mean overnight. “Sorta like taking a pill,” I reasoned.
“I don’t know there, Jim Bob Boy,” said Lamar, “but it sounds sorta hokey, you know what I mean, sorta like an old wives’ tale. Feed a dog gunpowder and it makes him mean? I don’t know. Why don’t we continue with our Mexican service station attendant plan for a while and see if the dog starts to get, you know, pissed off.”
“Yeah, pissed off. He’s gotten pissed off every time now, back in the corner. We’re starting to smell like a vomit and shit factory here,” I said. Bubba was petting the dog. “Tell you what,” I continued, “You donate three shotgun shells and I’ll do the rest, I’ll buy the first batch of dog food, put the gunpowder in and everything. But I want the credit. When that dog does some super guard-dog stuff and saves all our equipment or something, I want you two to say we have Jimmy to thank for this. A deal? Sure.”
Stopping in the next town, I went into the local feed store and checked on the price of dry dog food. It was much cheaper buying in volume, so I got a hundred-pound bag, figuring it was a big dog and a long trip. I also bought a large plastic dog dish. That night when we camped I took the three shotgun shells from Lamar, cut them open and sprinkled gunpowder over the first dish of dog food. I poured water over the mixture and stirred everything up. The dog was on a leash tied to a tree. As I sat the bowl of food in front of him, he wagged his tail. He had his eye fixed on the bowl and he bent his neck down and took a big mouthful of dog food flavored with gun powder. He started to take another mouthful, when suddenly he stopped. Froze. His mouth remained half open/half closed. Dog food began to fall out, back into the dish.
He spit out the rest of the food and went as far as he could on the leash away from the bowl of meaned-up dog food before sitting down. He gave me a long blank look. Next he cleared his throat to spit out the last bits of the dog food. He looked in the distance. I carried the food to him and tried to coach him into eating, without success. He kept moving away. I talked to him, I petted him, I acted like I was eating some of the dog food. Dog just looked at me, with one eyebrow raised just slightly, as if he was trying to convey a quizzical, “Who’re you trying to fool Jack?” look.
Finally I fixed him a dish of just dog food. The dog wouldn’t eat it. I threw it away and washed out the bowl completely and fixed another bowl. Dog wouldn’t eat it. I took some dry food and sprinkled it on the ground. The dog wouldn’t go near it. Bubba fixed a bowl of dog food in a cooking pot. Dog would not eat it.
The next morning, the same thing happened. No matter how we prepared the dog food, Dog wouldn’t eat it. Not to give up on the gunpowder idea, I put the powder from one shotgun shell in the dog’s water. He stopped drinking water.
“The thing I’ve learned here,” I said when we were packed up and on the road again that morning, “is that Lamar has bad tasting gunpowder. That’s all. There must be some good tasting gunpowder and some bad stuff. We happened to get the bad stuff. We’ll buy some different type shotgun shells and try it again. The principle is still good.”
The dog never ate any gunpowder, never got over his bladder-empting fear of Mexicans and never as far as I remember did a single guard dog thing as long as we had him. He never ate any of the dog food from that one hundred pound bag. We finally threw it away near Oaxaca, Mexico.
The dog was a constant problem when we cleared customs. We had no papers on him other than a receipt we received from the dog pound. We had to pay bribe to get Dog over every border. Bubba developed a routine when the custom official asked about the dog. He would fold up some U.S. money in the dog pound receipt and hand it to the official. The customs man either would ask for more money or pass the receipt back and motion us through. We knew that when conversation with the customs guys got around to the dog we were almost finished.
However we were never robbed. Dog was an absolute woose, but maybe just the sight of him around our camp site or sitting in the back of the Jeep when we were away was enough.
Appearances are sometime worthy as much as the real thing.
In Guatemala we often stopped at local cantinas along the road, the life line in rural Central America. We weren’t wearing beach clothes so often anymore; and sober we more or less minded our manners. We didn’t always seek out trouble in these beer stops but we did stand out. In one ratty cantina we were leaning on the bar enjoying a cold beer, not talking much, when a swarthy uniformed fellow came in, laid his M-1 rifle on the bar facing our direction and spoke to the barkeep. Lamar, who spoke a little Spanish, said he was talking about “blancos” and “gringos” in sort of an angry way. Bubba guessed that that would be us. The fellow watched us, with his hand on his rifle, until we left.
At another place, we were not so orderly or quiet. It was early evening. There was goodly collection of regulars and we drank more than one beer. We danced with some of the local girls and unsuccessfully tried to get a couple to sit with us.
Sitting at our table in the corner we were all laughing about something when Bubba, who was facing the bar, looked up and said, “Uh oh…”
Lamar and I, not too subtlely, turned quickly around to see a row of men along the bar looking at us. No guns, but some had some big knives on their belt. This was not a local welcoming committee, this was something from Deliverance.
There was maybe a half dozen of them angry-looking home-boys standing, glaring; we were out-numbered more than 2 to 1. We are in deep shit.
Behind Lamar and me, Bubba said, “I think maybe we ought to be just moving on down the road, you know what I mean?”
We got up and started towards the door, walking by some tables nearby rather than take the most direct route by the bar. The men followed us out the door and then down the road as we walked to our jeep and trailer. A knife appeared behind us, then a machete. As Lamar got the jeep started I went around the back to get in and the machete man followed me. Despite being by our Jeep, I felt a long way from home, and from any help I might get from Lamar and Bubba.
The man with the big knife yelled something and fainted a lunge towards me. I reached in the back of the jeep and got the first thing that came to my hand – a wooden folding chair – and slung it around. The man lunged back and hacked down with his machete, cutting into a couple of the legs. We were both yelling – his was more aggressive than mine, which was throaty, scared, primal, desperate, panic scream. As Lamar got the Jeep started and moving, the man lunged forward again and I jumped up on the trailer tongue. The man stepped back to avoid getting hit by the trailer, but he swung through with the machete and completely tore the chair apart. I threw the remains at him as Lamar accelerated down the road.
In climbing in the back on our camping gear as Lamar barreled down that dirt road out of town, I stepped on Dog who yelped. He was hiding under a blanket. The only time, really, when he was needed, he was trying hard to stay out of sight.
I don’t think our guard was a war dog.
First it was the snakes down by that Mississippi creek bed, now this poor excuse for dog meat.
Bet that ol’ man in the bar in east Texas would have laughed and laughed.
And unbeknownst to us fumbling, dumbling tin-horns, we were heading still further south toward a civil war in Nicaragua.