When I was a little kid – so young my memory was just starting – we would load up in the car and head to central Mississippi to visit my dad’s home place. It was in tiny Vaughn, Miss., which is notable only because that is where the great Casey Jones crashed his train. As a matter of fact, his gloves and railroad hat were said to be buried in the Virgin Ninetta’s yard that very night.
The town of Vaughn lies between Canton and Yazoo City and, in the summertime down there, it is sweltering hot. The big house, located about a half-mile from the mailbox on the highway, had no air conditioning and the whole manse was built up on top of all these huge four-foot pillars to help cool it in the summers. That was very common in the Deep South back in those days.
The main house was a big square of a two-story building with a wide porch going all around, and across the porch on each corner were bedrooms. The bedrooms were separate from the main house because back in the mid-1800s when it was originally built, that was the best fire protection a plantation could hope for.
Because the threat of a fire way out in the country was so fearful, the kitchen, with its massive wood-burning stove, and the pantry were in yet another out-building, down some steps just off the back porch. And, of course, the door to the big dining room was at the top of those same steps.
The place was huge and sprawling, with a cistern shed off to one side in the rose garden. It had a bucket on a long piece of rope with a big roller and you could draw up the coolest water you ever tasted. On the other side, further away, was an open shed next to a huge, fenced chicken coop and in the middle it had a big grinder where you cracked hard corn. That was fun for about ten minutes at a time.
There was no plumbing, which explained the huge pitchers of water, the face bowls and the chamber pots in each bedroom, and because we’d play from dawn until dark, I can’t remember if there was a TV or not. My brother and I would light out early with our .22 rifles, wreaking all kinds of havoc and swimming in the pond. We’d have all kinds of fun throughout the day.
There were several dogs, two of them massive black brutes that were bigger than any I’d ever seen They would go with us everywhere and we’d always go down to the pond first thing because the mighty pooch Rex despised snakes. The instant he’d see one Rex would pounce like lightning, snatching said serpent in his jaws and shaking the reptile madly back and forth until its quick demise.
Watching that dog work was more fun than going to live wrestling. We never worried about swimming in the pond, either, because Rex would swim right beside us. We tried to get him to play fetch using a turtle but neither animal was interested. When we’d walk through the hog lot, where the pigs were always cooling in the mud, Rex kept a wary eye. If a hog got too inquisitive, Rex would bristle and growl, a clear sign to leave his children alone.
It would really get hot later in the day and Rex would retire beneath the house to lounge in the cool dirt. Sometimes we would crawl underneath the house to join him for a snooze and so would stray chickens, which we’d chase and catch and put the hens back inside their fence. Rex thought the chickens were really pretty stupid but all the dogs left them alone.
Once Rex heard a five-year-old’s bare foot on the porch, he’d scramble out in a flash, ready for more hilarity and hoping we had replenished our ammo. He thought it was enormously funny that we couldn’t hit anything but that we didn’t yet know how to cuss when we missed. And when the cows would chase us, he’d delightfully act like he was escaping, too.
The reason my memory is so warm is because the other day in Clarksville, Tenn., another big black dog had a chance to be a hero. Darrell Layne, a 70-year-old, was walking a friend’s farm property when he stopped to open a cattle gate. As he did he looked down to see a large copperhead snake coiled and ready to strike.
Not long ago Darrell got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to adopt a black lab named Onex, who is certainly no stranger to heroism. Onex, believe it or not, is actually an Iraq veteran that spend the younger years of his life sniffing out hidden explosive devices intended to harm our Army’s troops. When Onex was retired from the Army and mustered out at Fort Campbell, Darrell wiggled his dog tags (he’s a Navy veteran) and was able to adopt the delightful war hero.
So last week when the copperhead coiled and hissed, Onex closed in, barking furiously, which diverted the snake’s attention and allowed Darrell to leap out of the way. Obviously a newcomer to snake fighting, Onex was bitten twice in the face after saving his master, which prompted Darrell to then pound the viper to death in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination.
Layne swept up Onex, made a mad dash to the closest veterinarian, and watched the doctor save the dog with antivenin, IVs and the like. The dog’s face is still a little swollen but Darrell told the Nashville Tennessean that Onex is back to normal. “He’s very protective of me, and I’ve noticed this more since this happened,” he said.
“I know what could have been if I didn’t have him,” the proud owner added. “Dogs can be the best partner you have, and unconditional love describes Onex. People need to take care of their pets like they would their best friend.”
Boy, I’ll say. But I also wish that I could take Onex way back in time because another ruffian, the noble Rex, could sure teach him a thing or two about dispatching a reptile anywhere within a quarter of a mile where young boys play. Back in Mississippi, during the hottest time of the year, Rex would teach Onex to swim, too. Ol’ Rex had that big a heart.