When I was a young dog just trying to survive on the streets of Wheeling in the early 1930s, few people ever paid any attention to me except, of course, for the dog catcher. I was what they called a “scruffy, dirty mutt” when a net came down on me, and I was thrown into the back of a smelly black panel truck that reeked of other dogs who were in considerably worse shape than me. I was pretty upset. I didn’t realize then that my capture was just the beginning of a life I never expected—being the eyes for a man who couldn’t see but had more energy than any human I ever came across. Soon, a lot of people would be paying attention to me. This is how it all happened.
After I was removed from the streets by the man with the net, I was taken to this cold dark building and put in a cage with two rather unfriendly dogs who often signaled their hostility by snapping at me whenever I tried to eat from the bowl of bug-infested food that was shoved into our cage by our keeper. The keeper was a mean kid with pimples and a nasty manner of speaking to all of us dogs in the many cages that lined the big dark room. I watched every day as some poor soul was grabbed from a cage and carried off never to be seen again. The pimple-faced kid handled them roughly whether they licked him trying to get some kind treatment or snapped at him in desperation. Both of my cage mates were eventually taken away and not in a gentle way either.
I was starting to feel like I was going to be next to disappear. Instead, the door opened to our cage room on the morning of my seventh day in dog jail, and a kindly old couple walked in and looked us all up and down very carefully. For some reason, they stopped in front of my cage and put their fingers through the cage. They smelled real good, like the air outside that big brick building with the clock in the tower near what the humans called the market house. I think it was where they make what they call bread which meant this older man must be a baker.
“This little fella may just be the one,” the man said to the woman.
I backed away from the door when pimple-face opened it and approached me. I was thinking that it was my turn to take one of his one-way trips out of the cage room.
“Watch out,” the kid said to the older humans as he scooped me up and plopped me into the old man’s outreached hands. “This one is pretty feisty. He’s been on the streets a while.”
“Feisty is perfect for where this little one is going,” the woman said.
The kid handed me over to the couple who took me to their home and fed me some great food they called hamburger. But then came the agony of what they called a bath. I tried to fight back, but there was no way I was going to bite them. They had been the first kind humans I had ever met. The next morning, they took me for a ride in the backseat of their car. The next thing I know, they were carrying me into this little store where humans went to get candy and the other kinds of food that sometimes found their way to the sidewalk where I used to discover it to my great pleasure.
Inside, I met him. He was a short by human male standards, and he didn’t have any hair on the top of his head. But, the thing I noticed that I had never seen before was that where his eyes should have been, there were just two deep impressions, and his eyelids were always closed. Dogs tell a lot about humans by looking at their eyes. We detect kindness, fear, cruelty, and sadness. But with this man, I didn’t have much to go on. He knelt, held out his hand, and I gave him the sniff. He smelled wonderful: like soap, and fresh, unburned tobacco, and candy, and bread, and all kinds of the things I love. I let him pick me up. He actually kissed the top of my head and stroked my fur in the gentlest way I had ever experienced. There was something about him. I loved him immediately.
“We can’t have you falling down sidewalk elevator shafts again,” the kind old gentleman said to the man who couldn’t see. “We read about the Germans training dogs to help blind people. We thought perhaps you could train this little creature to do something like that. What are you going to name your new little pal?”
“I think you just answered that,” the man who couldn’t see said. “How about Pal?”
And so, I became Pal.
Then, she came in the room. She was taller than my new master but, more than anything else, I noticed that she couldn’t see either. Obviously, if I was going to live with these humans, I was going to have to be quick on my feet, or I would be looking at a lifetime of being stepped on and tripped over.
“Thomas,” I heard her say (and so I learned his name was Thomas). “What’s all this about a dog? We never talked about a dog.”
“He’s a sturdy little animal, Lizzie,” Tom said. “His name is Pal, and he is going with me on the street from now on. And, Mabel is going to love him.”
Mabel, l learned later, was their young daughter. She could see and she would make many uncomfortable attempts to dress me in girls’ outfits right down to fluffy hats. I hated it, but since these two women were important to Thomas, they were important to me too, so I played along as best I could.
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The man named Thomas was very patient with me over the next several weeks as he taught me how to walk while connected to him on a long leather strap that fastened onto a belt they put around my neck. At first, I pulled and tried to go where I pleased like I used to, but he tugged on the strap and told me firmly but kindly, “no.” I’m a smart dog. Even though the smells I picked up on during our jaunts were calling out to me like crazy, I caught on pretty quickly. I came to understand that Thomas wanted me to be his eyes and watch out for things that might hurt him like unexpected holes in the street or curbs or things in the sidewalk that he might trip over, fall into, or bump. My reward was always a scrap of meat from the people’s ice box or maybe even a bit of sweet apple or cherry pie filling from the pies that the woman, Lizzie, made almost every afternoon. Oh and she baked bread rolls too that smelled ever bit as wonderful as the bread that they made up the street.
Thomas kept me busy. We were all over Wheeling. He was always on his feet from morning till evening. We delivered newspapers to people’s houses and dropped off Lizzie’s baked goods to people who gave us money that Tom used to buy us food and other supplies. We went uptown to the strange-smelling factories where Thomas sold sandwiches to the people who rolled brown leaves into long thin shapes for some reason. We started carrying brooms, mops, and other household items door-to-door all over Wheeling to sell to people who needed them.
People on the street would smile at us as we walked. Children would try to pet me, but I was much too busy to put up with their nonsense. I had a job to do. No harm was going to come to my human as long as I could keep up the pace. I also began to notice that people were staring at us on the street like we were some kind of oddity.
I loved stopping by the firehouses where firemen sat out in chairs in front of their trucks on the sidewalk and chatted with people who passed by. I would often get a treat when Thomas stopped to talk about Notre Dame football. Once a week, we visited the butcher shop. That was absolute heaven to a dog like me. The smells and sights in there made me crazy sometimes. In addition to the family’s dinners, Thomas would always pick up a little bundle that was just for me. I heard the butcher call them scraps, but they were grand dinners to me.
When we worked in the store, I had a nice comfortable pillow on the floor to relax on that was kept under Thomas’ chair. From that perch, I could keep an eye on the customers who came in and out of the store. Just because we weren’t out on the street didn’t mean I wasn’t on duty. Watching out for Thomas was my life’s work. If someone came in that looked suspicious to me, I’d start to bark until Thomas told me in his firm but kind voice: “Be still Pal.” But by that time, the person that I thought looked like they might be up to no good usually moved on.
The years seemed to fly by. There were a lot of good times and bad. I remember the Saturday nights when that other blind man, Chris, came in and played the piano and kept the young people up and dancing. My ears took a pounding, and the young humans flailed around and waved their arms so carelessly that I had more than one close call with a trampling.
I remember the time the water from the river came up so high that we had to stay on the second floor of the apartment, and none of us could get out. The water smelled awful and left mud all over the store and my pillow too.
I remember when Mabel’s boyfriend, George, came into the store and told the family that he had been something called “drafted” and that he would just be away for a year or so. Mabel and Lizzie cried and cried. Thomas just got quiet.
I remember the time when the man on the radio said something about an attack by something called the Japanese at a place called Pearl Harbor. This Pearl Harbor must have been someplace near us because everyone seemed so sad and upset. And, then, a lot of the young male humans who had been coming to the store every day suddenly went away, and a lot of them never came back.
That was around the time that people seemed to listen more intently to the radio news and read the newspapers to get what they called “the war news.” Lots of people hung around Thomas’ store talking about the goings on in Europe and the South Pacific, wherever that was. Sometimes they cheered. Sometimes they cried. I never did figure out what that was all about. Through it all, Thomas was kind and gentle toward me, never giving me a harsh word or the back of his hand. My brothers and sisters and I had a lot of that kind of treatment when we were just pups.
I was surprised when I heard Thomas tell someone that I had been with him for almost 12 years. It was about the time that my hips started to really hurt, and Thomas would sometimes leave me at home when he went out on his errands. That made me mad because I knew he needed me out there. Eventually, I just couldn’t keep up the pace that Thomas needed. That’s when he let me ride on top of the little cart he pushed to carry his products and do the shopping. I could still see trouble and bark from my place up there.
In the evenings, I just sat in his lap, and he would brush me or stroke my fur all evening until time to go to bed. I liked to sleep down in the store at night so I could keep an eye on things while Thomas got his rest. It worked out because I was having trouble with the steps anyway.
Yep. It had been a really good life so far. My human took care of me, and I took care of him. It was hard work but nothing bad happened on my watch. I planned to keep it that way.