The Mabel Files: Goodbye to a Little Dog with a Big Heart

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Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in. – Mark Twain

The streets of Wheeling have always been populated with colorful and remarkable characters whose existence inspired legends, tales and exaggerations: some were eccentric; some were comical; some were mysterious; some were dangerous; and some had four legs. Pal, the feisty little mutt dog who, for 12 years, helped blind entrepreneur Tom Minns negotiate obstacles and hazards during business jaunts and social adventures in the 1930s and 1940s, was one of those colorful characters that the people of South and Center Wheeling remembered and talked about for decades.

Like his master, Pal was a well-traveled creature of Wheeling’s streets. He knew every curb, pole, sidewalk loading elevator and fire hydrant from North Wheeling to the city’s border with Benwood and expertly steered Tom around potential dangers with great skill. Pal had been rescued from the city’s dog pound and presented to Tom as a present by concerned friends in 1932 after Tom fell down a store’s open and undetected sidewalk elevator shaft. Pal never received formal training to do his job as a guide dog. Tom, with his usual patience and stubbornness, taught him while lavishing love and affection on the little dog, making him an indispensable part of the Minns family.

Tom’s little dog attracted a lot of attention because guide dogs for blind people were a rarity. The first formal school for training guide dogs was formed in Pottsdam Germany in the early 1920s to help blinded veterans from World War I. The first guide dog school in America had only been established in 1929 in Nashville, and it trained only  large breeds like German Shepherds. Squirts like the seven-pound mutt from Wheeling would never have been considered for formal training.

Pal guided Tom on paper delivery routes; door-to-door sales calls; trips to sell lunches to workers at Marsh Wheeling Stogies, Hazel Atlas Glass, Bloch Brothers, and other factories; and on daily errands, shopping trips and visits to friends. Pal was well regarded and known to the firemen who sat in front of their stationhouses in wooden captain’s chairs; the children playing dodgeball in school yards; cops walking their beats; mail carriers; waitresses; delivery boys; and people at work or leisure at every spot in the city where Tom conducted business. Pal would accept a pat on the head or the occasional scrap of food from admirers he encountered on his missions with Tom, but his attention was always focused on the short, happy, blind Irishman with the bamboo cane.

When he wasn’t on the street with Tom, the shaggy little grey dog stayed in the store Tom operated with his wife, Lizzie, and kept a wary eye on customers. But, when Tom summoned him with a quick call of his name, Pal would always spring into action, run to where his leash hung on a low hook, pull it down, and trot over to where Tom would hook it to his collar and head for the door.

He was a man’s dog and shied away from women’s attention. He whined, twisted, turned and squirmed to resist the attempts of Tom’s daughter, Mabel, to enlist him as her plaything by dressing him in doll’s clothing. He seldom allowed Mabel or Lizzie to hold him in their laps. When George, Mabel’s fiancé, came on the scene in the mid-1930s, Pal warmed up to him quickly and often barked a greeting when the young man came courting.

By late 1941, Tom didn’t take Pal on his leash anymore because the old dog’s hips had begun to deteriorate, and he was unable to keep up the pace that Tom needed to maintain so the unlikely partnership adapted. Tom continued to take Pal on his missions, but now the little dog rode atop the wheeled cart that Tom built many years earlier to transport the groceries he bought and the products he sold around town. Pal couldn’t guide Tom around obstacles anymore, but the two developed a kind of communication system that seemed to work.

George, Tom and Pal in 1940

George, Tom and Pal in 1940

Pal, the faithful lookout, would let out a short crisp single bark when Tom approached a curb or obstacle, just in time for his master to detect the objects or dropoffs with his little bamboo cane. The sight of the blind man briskly walking while pulling the cart with the little dog keenly watching for difficulties from his perch delighted the folks they met on the street.

Pal continued to live a privileged life as a devoted member of the Minns family. He got scraps from the butcher on Fridays, bones from the pot roasts Lizzie cooked on Sundays, a weekly brushing from Tom on Wednesdays, and little rubber toys to chew whenever the old ones were gnawed to bits.

By the spring of 1942, the old fella spent most of his time asleep, either on his own pillow in a corner of Tom’s Market Street confectionary, where the sun beamed through the front store window, or in the warm kitchen behind the store in various locations around the stove. He loitered there to Lizzie’s great inconvenience and annoyance because a semi-mobile lump of feisty fur was a bad addition to an active blind woman’s kitchen floor. Lizzie tripped over Pal on numerous occasions and even stepped on the old dog’s tail a time or two without serious consequence.

But Pal’s health continued to worsen. His energy waned, and he was in obvious pain when he waddled from side-to-side from room-to-room in the little store/home across from the Centre Wheeling Market. He spent most evenings in Tom’s lap, occasionally giving a slow weak lick to the back of his master’s hand. He didn’t bark much by then as his little heart grew weaker.

Early one morning, Tom came down the steep wooden steps from the second floor bedrooms and entered the warm kitchen in search of his little friend. He called Pal’s name. There was no yelp of response or sound of paws on the wooden floor. Tom called Mabel down, and she looked for the little dog. She found him in the store, lying under the chair that Tom kept behind the candy counter. He had passed away in the night. Mabel found one of Tom’s handkerchiefs wadded between Pal’s two front paws.

Mabel says she never saw her father cry, but when she told him about Pal that morning, he retreated back upstairs without speaking and stayed there for some time.

News traveled fast in the neighborhoods of Center and South Wheeling. Before long, there was a store full of Tom’s loyal loafers from years past and present: men and women, boys and girls had all gathered to offer Tom help in dealing with the loss of his little friend. Some men from Bloch Brothers brought in a burlap sack and a sturdy wooden shipping box and placed Pal inside both. Women from the flower shop up the street came by with a few red roses. Two firemen arrived in an official Fire Department vehicle and offered to drive Tom to wherever he wanted to take Pal for burial. Two high school boys volunteered to go along with shovels they brought from their homes.

Tom placed his fedora on his head and took Mabel’s elbow. The little crowd parted, and they made their way outside. The firemen carried the shipping box out to the vehicle which was large enough to accommodate Tom, Mabel, the two boys, and the firemen. There was even a single police motorcycle escort as they drove to a spot on Wood Street, where they parked and climbed a steep hill into the woods. There, the boys dug deep into the rich soil under a shady tree. The firemen lowered the box, and the little group said goodbye to Pal.

Nineteen forty-two was a year of bad news on a global scale. It was the year of the Battle of Midway, the Bataan Death March, and the beginning of gas rationing in the U.S. A cyclone struck Bangladesh and killed 61,000 people, and America began sending all Japanese Americans to internment camps. Wheeling boys, including George Griffith, were being sent into harm’s way. But on that day, with so much going on in the world, Tom’s friends, the kind people of Wheeling, took a few moments to mourn the loss of one little old dog who spent a life in service and brought smiles to world-weary faces.

Tom was offered many replacement dogs by well-meaning friends over the following year, but he always politely declined the offers.

“No dog could replace Pal,” Tom told his friends and family. “No sense to even try.”



2 Responses

  1. tam

    By coincidence, yesterday I received a request, via mail, to join a charitable organization by the name of Guide Dog Foundation For The Blind, Inc. I thought I’d already settled on the charities I was going to support; however, after reading the latest installment of The Mabel Files titled “Goodbye to a Little Dog with a Big Heart, by Gerry Griffith, it was obvious that I was going to add this particular charity to my list. As this charity appears to have the blessings of Charity Navigator, coupled with the fact that I am a retired Rehabilitation Counselor with 35 years in working with the disabled, I know first hand the incredible bond these highly sought after animals form between themselves and their human counterparts, I have no trepidation in knowing I made the correct decision. Thank you to Weelunk for allowing Gerry to publish his incredible experiences with Mabel and her entire family during those incredible challenging years and I lok forward to reading more adventures to come

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