A neighbor and his teenage sons recently acquired a second dog, an animal they found abandoned in a vacant lot. It was not yet thoroughly feral but its back and face are scarred, and it remains skittish around strangers. John is a formidable person, physically and otherwise, but has a soft spot for children, animals and most of his neighbors. He’s the only person I’ve known who feeds not only squirrels and birds but opossums. His new dog shares his bed.
Last Friday evening, his 17-year-old put food in the dogs’ dishes in the kitchen, the new dog grabbed a mouthful and ran into one of the bedrooms, where the other one joined her and started a fight. Spit, blood and fur were flying when the boy reached in to break it up and the new dog bit off the end of the middle finger on his left hand and swallowed it. John drove him to the hospital and learned the bone at the fingertip had been chipped. The doctor stitched him up, gave him a prescription for Tylenol 3 and sent him home. Three days later, John was still cussing out his son and his foolishness.
In The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785), Boswell describes a conversation he is having with Dr. Johnson on this date, Oct. 18, in 1773.
Johnson says he might enjoy owning an island like Inch Kenneth, off the west coast of the Isle of Mull, in Scotland, but he would have to build a fortress for protection. Boswell says he would keep a dog. The story continues:
“JOHNSON. `So you may, sir; but a large dog is of no use but to alarm.’ He, however, I apprehend, thinks too lightly of the power of that animal. I have heard him say, that he is afraid of no dog. He would take him up by the hinder legs, which would render him quite helpless, and then knock his head against a stone, and beat out his brains. Topham Beauclerk told me, that at his house in the country, two large ferocious dogs were fighting. Dr. Johnson looked steadily at them for a little while; and then, as one would separate two little boys, who are foolishly hurting each other, he ran up to them, and cuffed their heads till he drove them asunder.”
Myth or dumb luck? The story flatters Johnson, of course, but seems true to his character. Boswell adds, “But few men have his intrepidity, Herculean strength, or presence of mind. Most thieves or robbers would be afraid to encounter a mastiff.” Not that Johnson is fearless. Most of his numerous fears are far from rational. Earlier in the same day’s entry, Boswell reports:
“I this morning took a spade, and dug a little grave in the floor of a ruined chapel, near Sir Allan M’Lean’s house, in which I buried some human bones I found there. Dr. Johnson praised me for what I had done, though he owned, he could not have done it. He shewed in the chapel at Rasay his horrour at dead men’s bones. He shewed it again at Col’s house. In the charterroom there was a remarkable large shin-bone; which was said to have been a bone of John Garve, one of the lairds. Dr. Johnson would not look at it; but started away.”