Ron Karpinski  ©2000


There has never been a dog quite like Duchess.  A mongrel with a pedigree, her direct line of descent could be traced to at least one parent, a boxer of dubious lineage.  If one employed a little imagination, Duchess looked somewhat like a boxer.

Duchess sported a short coat of dull black hair, with all four paws dipped in rust brown.  Pointed ears flopped over at the top, a fawn trim along the edges.  A faint flicker of intelligence shone from large brown eyes, conveying an impression of understanding.

A million other dogs looked very much like that.  The thing that set Duchess apart was her perpetual state of nervousness.  That dog feared its own shadow.

Duchess lived with my best friend, Bob, and his family.  How or why she ever wandered up to their house among the orange groves of rural southern California has been lost to the sands of time.  She simply showed up one day and blended in.

Soon, she began to tag along, as Bob and I canvassed the neighborhood after school, searching for excitement.  In that year, 1962, Bob and I were passing through an awkward age -- too old for bicycles and too young for cars.

For two fifteen-year-olds, it is a razor thin line that separates right from wrong.  Bob and I constantly found ourselves knee-deep in mischief.  Duchess, on the other hand, had an uncanny nose for impending trouble.  Invariably, when we crossed the line, she bolted in the opposite direction.  If not the most loyal dog in the world, she at least exhibited more common sense than we did.

Bobís father, a firefighter, and his mother, a nurse, both worked odd shifts.  Often, after school, Bob and I found ourselves alone at home, staring at that old gray Nash Rambler parked in the back yard.  Both of us had, by that time, successfully completed five hours of high school driverís training and were itching to take the car for a test spin.

Bob had ridden in the Nash many times, with his dad behind the wheel.  He had observed the gauges closely and knew approximately how far one could drive, before the gas needle moved.  If we limited ourselves to a fifteen-minute excursion up the lonely, winding Turnbull Canyon road, Bob reasoned, and, if we parked the car exactly as before, no one would be the wiser.

Did we, even for one brief second, consider the possibility of danger, of getting caught, or losing our parents' hard-earned trust?  No.  Temptation overwhelmed those fears -- and all other powers of reason.  The two of us clambered inside the ancient Nash.  With a little coaxing, faithful Duchess hopped onto the back seat.

For several minutes, we sat in silence, staring at the gauges, pedals, and shift lever.  Then Bob, sitting behind the steering wheel, announced, "I donít know how to drive a stick shift."

"Me either," I answered.  "So what?  How hard can it be?  Let's go!"

Bob tried to remember all the steps he'd seen his dad perform behind the wheel.  He knew enough to push in the clutch when changing gears, and he also recalled that his dad gave it the gas at the same time; but how much clutch, and how much gas?  We braced for a bumpy ride.

"The clutch pedal is the one on the left," I offered.  Bob pushed it all the way down to the floor and pressed the starter button on the dashboard.  The small four-cylinder motor cranked to life.  Bob found the gas pedal and revved the engine.  We both smiled.

The smiles quickly disappeared, however, as an overpowering stench suddenly spread throughout the car.  Bob winced.  "Damn, Ronnie, what the hail did you do?"

"I didn't do anything," I said.  "Are you sure it wasn't you?"

A few seconds passed, before the thought occurred to look in the back seat.  There, the real culprit lay on her tummy, paws covering both ears, those baleful brown eyes pleading for permission to escape -- desperate to get out of that car.  Duchess wanted no part of this scheme.


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