During the summer that started with the end of third grade we moved to Morro Bay, a sleepy little fishing village located on California’s central coast. It was quite a change for me as I had lived nearly all of my young life until that time in Rialto, a suburban community located in a large valley east of Los Angeles, that still had numerous orange groves. We had also lived a couple of blocks from my paternal grandparents, who I frequently visited. Our new home was several hundred miles north and far from family and childhood friends.
While lacking many things I had grown accustomed to, it made up for it in other ways. Also, since we had vacationed in the area before, it was not completely foreign to me. I recall spending most of that first summer riding my bike, playing on the beach, and exploring my new home. When fall came that year it brought with it many cold and foggy days and, of course, the start of fourth grade.
Soon I found myself thinking about turning 10. Like many pre-teens, I remember feeling that I would be very grown up since my age would now include two numbers. My birthday fell on a Saturday that year and my mom and middle sister had left early that morning to go shopping. They returned later on and asked me to help bring in the groceries. I ran to the car and instantly noticed a shopping bag moving by itself! I reached for that one first, as my mother and sister must have known that I would, because they were behind me. I was happily surprised to see a small, dark and furry lump that popped up and greeted me with a lick! He was no bigger than a Guinea Pig and had soft but wiry black fur, with a matching black nose, dark brown eyes, and a wiggly, long for his size, tail. From the minute that I spotted him I knew that he was one of kind. The first thing my mother asked me was “what are you going to name him?” Without hesitation, I responded that since he was black as “charcoal” that would be his name.
Initially, I made Charcoal a nice bed, I thought, on the floor next to me, but he would have none of that and carried on until I picked him up. After that, he slept at the foot of my bed. We went for walks nearly every day and he grew quickly. Being mostly Terrier, he was a smallish, medium-sized dog, who probably never exceeded 30 pounds in weight. As he grew, he turned out to be not the cutest dog, but he had qualities that made him endearing nonetheless.
I taught him how to walk on a leash, though he really never cared for that much. We would hike through fields and down rutted roads usually on route to the bay, piers, or the beach. When he got bigger, I would ride my bike and he would run behind where often, because he was mostly a Terrier, he would bark at cars or people while trailing me.
I would sometimes find interesting trees to explore which, being a boy, I would do often. One day while doing just that, Charcoal became tired of waiting for me on the ground and he started to climb the tree too! After a few attempts doing this, he became pretty good at it, for a dog, and could usually make it half way up most trees. Of course, I almost always had to help him get back down because I did not want him to get hurt, though loose sand covered most of the ground that we explored and the trees were not very tall.
Charcoal loved to play tug-o-war and he would find a toy, or rag, or once in a while even a stray piece of clothing, and drop it near me whenever he wanted to have a game. He also loved chasing other animals and at night he would sometimes go out for a bathroom break and refuse to come back in the house. This worried me, but in the morning he would always be at the door and wagging his tail, as if to say thank-you for not making me stay in all night. It was during these “adventures” where he must have met the locals, because when I rode my bike around town neighbors would often talk to him as if they knew him. I figured that he must have because his response to them was a wag and never a bark, which he did to strangers he did not trust!
When Charcoal was a year old we moved about 5 miles across the bay to another town called Los Osos. The house we lived in was brand new and surrounded by fields with Oak trees and bushes, containing all manner of wild life from possums to lizards, the former Charcoal loved to chase! This was made easier for him to do because the property, like most in the then semi-rural area at that time, had no fence.
The elementary was also brand new, and located down a sandy dirt road, two blocks from home. One day, Charcoal showed up after lunch, and was distracting students who were looking at him through the windows. The teacher was about to call maintenance to have him removed when I recognized him and let her know that he was my dog and that I would take care of it. I went outside and walked him to the road and told him to “go home.” He looked at me with pleading eyes and then turned and went back towards home. At some point after that initial showing he appeared again, though this time it was near the end of the day, and he did not go close to the windows, but waited until I came out. By spring of that year, he regularly met me at the end of each day and walked me back home!
The next year I started Junior High, 7th grade, and also attended a new school, but it being well over a mile away, I had no visits from Charcoal. One day, in the fall, I road my bike up to a local market to get some comic books (we did not own any video games). Charcoal followed me and waited outside the store. I was not inside for more than a couple of minutes when I heard the sound of dogs barking, with one of them being mine. When I got outside he was in the jaws of a large Pit-bull and it was swinging him around. I quickly located the owner inside and he freed Charcoal, who was bleeding from a large wound on his neck. I went to the payphone (cell phones were not widely available yet) and called home and asked my brother to come and pick us up. Charcoal did not whimper or fuss when the Veterinarian was fixing him up. If I remember correctly, he required around a dozen, or so, stitches and the Vet told us he was lucky to be alive. He soon healed up and was back to doing the things that he loved in a short time!
When taking him on walks, or bike rides, to the bay, I noticed that he did not want to go near the water. I thought about this, and one time brought a favorite rubber toy with me and tossed it in the bay very close to the shore. He went in and grabbed it quickly, shaking himself off and looked at me as if asking that I not do that again. Of course, being the child that I was I ignored his request, and in a few days I had him regularly fetching sticks in the bay, which he did often after that.
Time passed and before I knew it, I was starting the 8th grade. I had Charcoal for 3 and half years by then. Unfortunately, he still liked to go out at night and many times continued to refuse to come back inside. One morning after going out (I think it was in October) he did not show up and was nowhere to be found all day long. I was really worried about him when late that afternoon a friend from school called. I knew from the sound of the ring that I did not want to answer the phone, but I did, and my friend asked if I was missing my dog. I said that I was and he told me that his brother accidentally hit one while driving home late the night before. He asked me to come over and see if the dead dog was mine. I hung up and was at his house in half the time it would have ordinarily have taken me to travel the 4 blocks. I slowed down when I saw my friend in his driveway and the unmoving, small mound of black matted fur next to him. He asked me if that was my dog, to which I just nodded, turned and quietly walked back home.
In his passing he taught the 13-year-old me a great deal about the essence of life and, in time, there were other terrific dogs, but none were quite like him. I have not been back to that town in many years, but when I visit, I am instantly reminded about those halcyon childhood days and my loyal pal and fellow adventurer who was so much more than simply a pet…