Jim Mashek column: We love you Piper

I’m not sure how to describe the last 72 hours and change.

Sometimes it seems like a month ago. Even longer.

Then sometimes it overwhelms me at what I’m doing, bringing me to tears. Feeling numb, even immobile. Nothing like I’d want anyone to experience.

I’ve loved dogs for so long, yet for professional reasons, sometimes personal ones, I couldn’t have my own spoiled canine. For 30 years.

Too much travel with the newspaper business. Not enough income to justify such a commitment. Knowing that owning a dog is a COMMITMENT, and all it entails.

I did have a dog in the ’80s, a sweet, small white furball named Duchess. She went about 20-24 pounds, had more idiosyncracies than you could possibly imagine and had the cutest face you’d ever seen. Like a baby seal or something.

When Duchess got older, 10 or 11, I was moving to South Texas. I couldn’t ask that sweet little dog to live in that kind of heat, at that age. My Mom and Dad hadn’t had a dog themselves since we were kids, when Pretty Girl ran with the four Mashek boys, first in Houston and then later in Potomac, Maryland.

Pretty Girl was short, squat, and absolutely adorable. She could stand under a tree looking at a squirrel for 20, 30 minutes. Easy. She loved going to slow-pitch softball games in Montgomery County, Maryland, because they had soft-serve ice cream, which meant the little kids along the fence were easy prey.Naturally, Pretty Girl cost my Dad a few bucks from time to time, but the hardest part was reassuring the kid that Pretty Girl loved children, and she did to be sure.

Pretty Girl’s Dad, best we can tell, was what my Dad would call a “traveling salesman,” and her Momma, a massive Bassett Hound that lived at the end of our street, Pinerock Lane in Houston.

Her name was Duchess.

So when I got MY Duchess, a tiny, 6-pound female dog covered in fleas in a chicken coup in Dayton, Texas, in 1981, I had but one regret. Not dropping another $15 to get both female pups in the cage, which mighta been a little tough for me and Mrs. Mashek — stop the presses, yeah it really happened, fughetaboutit — to have TWO playful little pups in a little one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a massive apartment complex in Clear Lake City.

So I brought Duchess home, we bathed her until it was bedtime and she became my constant companion, the kind of dog that made friends with everybody. Never met a stranger. All the personality in the world.

Me and Duchess boogied over to Baton Rouge in 1985, when I caught a big break and got to cover the New Orleans Saints and the LSU baseball team. Trouble was, mid-level management at that newspaper was an unmitigated disaster, and in October, 1991, I got outta Red Stick, taking a shot at the big time with a New York City tabloid — its most fabled one, to be sure — during a strike, which was NOT an uncommon occurrance in those days.

I had a little attic apartment in Staten Island, near the ferry, during my time in New York. It was on Sherman Avenue, which was a steep hill with cars lining every parking spot. Small lots. Older homes, like the one they converted into my apartment, along with two or three others.

Duchess stayed home with Mom and Dad in Washington. She kinda liked the Georgetown scene. Watched my Mom cook dinner, underneath hoping and waiting for scraps. At dinner time, she’d descend halfway down the stairs and bark at my Dad in the den. Without fail. It became a Mashek family ritual, for the 4 or 5 years Mom and Dad took care of The Duch.

Of course, I went back to visit a few times, and I think Duchess was worried I’d be takin’ her back to slummin’. She got a little ornery in her golden years, and she developed some big, flappy ears that seemed too big for her body. (Mom and Dad always took Duchess on a couple long walks a day; they kept her weight under control.)

When Duchess died, in 1995, I was in my second year at the Gulfport-Biloxi newspaper. Covering college sports, primarily the SEC — mostly Mississippi State and Ole Miss, and occasionally, LSU — in addition to high schools and helping out with the New Orleans Saints coverage.

Mom wrote me a long letter about Duchess’ last days on this good earth. Her sad eyes, her weak bladder. Her lethargy. Her last couple visits to the vet. Duchess was dying, and Mom and Dad made sure she was comfortable at the end. Duchess is buried, they told me, in a pet cemetery at the base of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia.

A beautiful setting, I’m told.

Then, Mom signed off with a simple message.

“Duchess reminded us of you,” she penned before her signature.

I lost it. Sure I did. Cried my eyes out. It’s a long way from D.C. to Biloxi. All I could think of were all the memories, in Clear Lake, then in Lake Jackson, and after my divorce, Baton Rouge. A trip to see my brothers Tom and Dave during spring training in 1985, right after Villanova knocked off Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the NCAA championship game. Me and Duchess hopped in my little blue Honda CRX and drove all the way to Clearwater, Florida, during Tom’s early days in minor-league baseball.

Had to go back to Baton Rouge about 48 hours after I got there, but hey, I was young and stupid. And I had the little dog. She was good karma. Always. Anytime I’d go through the drive-through, at a burger joint, Duchess would stick her little head behind mine and give the cashier the look that she hadn’t eaten for hours. Days. Whatever.

“Can I give her a french fry or two,” the young, sweet voice from the window would say.

I was such a wannabe hardass in those days. “Nah, she doesn’t need it,” or something like that.

All those years passed. Thirty years. Visiting with my brothers at their places and spending as much time with their dogs as possible. Taking care of Moxie, the beagle mix of my neighbor Hugh’s during my final years in Biloxi, from time to time. Precious little time around those sweet little faces, swinging tails and walks around the block.

Until May 7, 2021, roughly two years after I moved to Bowling Green. Sharon Sharp and I had made plans with my wily, personable fraternity brother Steve Robertson to attend a baseball game at Western Kentucky. Where Roscoe (Steve’s nickname) was playing baseball while I was walking on with the football team. We were going to Western’s game against Conference USA rival Florida Atlantic, I think, but it really doesn’t matter.

What mattered is Amanda, from the Bowling Green/Warren County Humane Shelter, called to let me know that a young dog that I liked on a recent visit was available for adoption. Amanda took a second look at my application, it seemed to me and Sharon, and decided she had a dog named Precious that was “(mine) if you can get here today.”

It was a Saturday, about 11:30 a.m. Sharon and I were meeting Roscoe at the yard to see the Hilltoppers’ game. It was kind of a chilly day, for Kentucky in May, but not too bad. I really didn’t remember much about Precious, because her tight quarters at the shelter indicated she’d already been adopted.

Western was ahead the entire game, until our bullpen fell apart, and Florida Atlantic tied it up. It was still the top of the eighth inning. But it was also about 3 o’clock, and I knew the shelter and its adoption center were only open until 4.

Me and Sharon got there at 3:30, on the nose. Found Amanda. Amanda directed a young volunteer to bring Precious to the visiting room, I think they called it. I was kinda nervous; I’d been looking for a small female dog for MONTHS. The kind of pet that made sense for a smaller domicile.

Sharon sat on a chair in the back of the visiting room, and I found a spot on the finished concrete floor. They brought Precious into the room, and she was beyond shy. She was nervous. I sat on the floor, already knowing Precious was a smaller dog. Less than 20 pounds.

They dragged the sweet, little black-and-tan dog across the room, and I pulled her into my arms. She started to get a little relaxed. She seemed to be warming up to me and Sharon. Amanda delivered on her promise, and we boogied over the Petco to pick up a trove of canine needs, from a doggie bed and the cage it would go in, when I’d have to leave her behind when I wasn’t home.

Sharon has cats that she loves in her Owensboro home. Abby and Paris and Faith, the inside kitties. Alpha and Beta, the two “outdoor cats” that Sharon and her late husband John Sharp adopted themselves. Faith was Sharon’s momma’s kitty. Paris for some reason seems to like the sound of my voice.

We decided Precious would become Piper, and they took our photo for the BG/Warren County Humane Society web site. Piper looked more than a little nervous.

But what did we know.

Piper settled in quickly at my domicile on Amy Avenue, picking up traits and habits that made Sharon and my neighbors laugh from time to time. She was at least half Jack Russell Terrier, we believe, because of the way she can run and jump and that she could be a little hyper. OK, plenty hyper. But also amusing. And sweet.

Piper slept in the bed that first night, and that was gonna be the case each and every night. At home or on the road. At my apartment or in a hotel room. She had to be touching me at bedtime, usually her back against my side. I guess I should say, USUALLY.

Piper can sleep, and I mean, SLEEP. She’s got all kinds of energy during the day, and absolutely LOVES the dog park on Cave Mill Road. The kids next door, Bella and Jordan and their big sister, Chellie, and Alejandro and Jeffery, all love Piper. They’ll surround her, take turns petting her. Marvel at her sweet face. Bella is just 4 but she’s animated, curious and sweet as they come.

And Bella and Piper developed a special bond, almost immediately.

I’d had Piper for four months, almost to the day, when my buddy and I had an accident in Ohio County. My 2006 Honda Accord, a ride I called the Silver Bullet, hit the guardrail and did significant damage to the front end and passenger’s side. It all happened in a flash. It was pretty scary. And Piper was spooked. Petrified.

I opened the driver’s side door and Piper, still attached to her leash, jumped out of the back seat and squeezed out the door from the driver’s seat. Also, in an instant. I lunged after Piper, who bolted onto the median of Interstate 165 at about the 57-mile marker, about 15 minutes south of Owensboro.

Piper is so fast, so fast, but I ran after her. To try to coax her back to the car. I caught my foot in a groove on the outside and fell flat on my face. Yeah, it hurt. But I was going after Piper. Some bruised ribs and some scrapes and minor cuts weren’t going to stop me.

But, awash in tears, I couldn’t give chase. Piper ran like the wind, and I already knew that. She disappeared over the horizon, and I went back to the disabled car. Two or three other vehicles stopped to see if they could help, and then a woman passing by offered to take me down Interstate 165 to look for Piper.

I quickly accepted.

We got in the car and down the highway with some haste, looking at both sides of the interstate as well as the median. We must have gone 2, maybe 3 miles before returning to the scene of the accident.

I was besides myself. Absolutely crushed. Confused. Beyond despair. I didn’t know what to do.

The two officers with the Ohio County Sheriffs Office arrived and worked the scene. One of them looked like an offensive tackle and when he found out I was a sportswriter, he smiled and nodded. Turns out he played football for the Ohio County Eagles. The other officer working the scene told me he understood my despair.

“They’re part of our families,” he said.

Sharon came down from Owensboro to give us a lift home, and we looked for Piper along Interstate 165 for 60, maybe 90 minutes. We returned to Bowling Green, but not before two or three of my crying episodes, seemingly out of nowhere. I was despondent.

After 2 or maybe 3 hours of sleep, Sharon and I made the quick drive up Interstate 165, formerly the William H. Natcher Expressway (“The Natcher”), stopping near Mile Marker 57, where we began our search for Piper. I covered 3 or 3.5 miles on the expressway, usually on the shoulder but on occasion near the median, calling out Piper’s name and shaking a bowl of her kibble in a plastic container. After a while, in the hot sun.

Then we covered two or three streets on either side of the interstate, a rural area of Ohio County near the town of Hartford. Talked to a couple biker types at a convenience store. A high school kid doing some farm work. A couple that actually ran a doggie hotel along with a small farm. Finally, out of energy, we doubled back to Owensboro for some Starbucks before returning to Bowling Green at about 5:30, quarter ’til 6.

Scotty and Amanda, a couple in Beaver Dam, had seen one of my Facebook posts about Piper’s disappearance and found a small black-and-tan dog in their back yard at about 7 a.m. Her color schemes were the same as Piper’s. Seemingly, identical. When Scotty put the phone up for me to call to the dog, she wimpered and cried. Piper had really bad separation anxiety. She was, after all, a shelter dog.

And such a sweet one.

Sharon and I got up to Beaver Dam at about dusk and met with Scotty and Amanda and the little black dog they found in their back yard. She was traumatized, clearly, but fell into our arms to let us love her. We were exhausted, beyond belief, but we were sure it was Piper, Piper having lost a significant amount of weight after her terrifying ordeal.

We brought her home.

On Monday morning, I took the little dog to the Bowling Green/Warren County Humane Shelter. They had microchipped Piper before my adoption. He scanned he puppy’s body and told me the bad news. I fell to pieces. Literally, to pieces.

The vet there quickly let me know that they’d give this dog her shots and make sure she was OK. I called Sharon up in Owensboro, and she was equally distraught. But the vet was understanding, and compassionate, much like the officer working the wreck on Interstate 165 on Friday. He did the paperwork for this puppy, a puppy with a lot of Piper’s traits in addition to her energy.

We’re calling her Pumpkin.

Pumpkin has met the neighbors, Mary and Brian next door and Juaun across the sidewalk, and the cute kids next door. They love Piper’s sweet demeanor, and they are equally taken by Pumpkin’s presence.

They seem to understand.

I wish I did. I’m still dealing with the shock, of Piper’s disappearance. The futile (so far) search for her, checking with lost pet agencies and the like. Trying to spread the word.

Piper is still out there, we believe. We hope. She has an ID tag, and is microchipped. We have not given up. No way. I have to believe she’s still with us. Somewhere.

In the meantime, Pumpkin is home. She has a home. She doesn’t know about her doppleganger, at least ostensibly, or as far as we know. She’s sweet, she’s a little helpless, she cries if she thinks she’s going to be by herself. I mean, immediately.

Piper, we love you.

Always have, always will.

Come home, sweet puppy. God bless.