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Walking in a Basset wonderland

Gene Lyons
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Gene Lyons

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

If it's the Christmas season, it's time for the Fred and Beverly Santa photo. Our two basset hounds have passed, but the Santa photo lives on — a family classic. I defy anybody to look at it without smiling: Beverly lolling happily in St. Nick's lap, with Fred indignant and under restraint: "Never mind taking my picture, get me out of here!"

Santa was a trouper. Fred could pull like a 4WD pickup.

We can't imagine life without basset hounds. Indeed, the Lyons Plan for Universal World Peace includes mandatory basset ownership. The stubborn little brutes make you smile every time you look at them.

Did I say little? Fred weighed 85 pounds, all muscle. My wife liked to say he was a large dog with short legs. His feet were enormous.

A basset is basically a beagle on steroids. It's a French breed — a nation with a seeming predilection for odd-looking dogs. Like beagles, they're tracking hounds bred to follow game with their great, snuffling noses and giant floppy ears. Also to be persistent, another word for stubborn. Basset hounds aren't so much disobedient as congenitally immune to discipline, as headstrong as cows.

Also, however, with generous, loving hearts. Bassets love everybody. They're happy all the time. Gentle, too; you almost can't make them fight. It's partly the contrast between their eternal optimism and woebegone expression that makes them so lovable.

We came by Beverly in the traditional way: Diane found her (then called "Blossom") at a shelter. An elderly couple had decided she was too much for them and reluctantly surrendered her. My wife passed a stringent adoption interview. We changed her name to honor a friend. Later, she became "Bun Rabbit," then just "Bun" — like the puppet on Captain Kangaroo.

Fred appeared as the newspaper's "Pet of the Week." As our beloved beagle of that name had died, it seemed fated. Fred the basset was an escape artist nobody could keep home. I was confident that I could keep him put, which partly involves plenty of exercise. It wasn't until we'd agreed to take him sight unseen that we learned he was in Fort Smith, 150 miles away. Oh well, that's what Sunday afternoons are for.

Where Fred really began to live right was on our Perry County farm. He thrived on liberty, and particularly enjoyed napping in the haystacks with calves. (Indoors, he snoozed with cats.) Because of his mellow disposition, cows treated him as an honorary herd member.

He did sometimes woof at horses, which in Fred-speak meant, "You run, I'll chase." Mostly, they ignored him.

One afternoon I saw a buck being chased along Cypress Creek by our Great Pyrenees, Jesse. Minutes later, Fred came slowly hooting along the scent line. Jesse evidently quit and came home after losing sight of the deer. Fred, however, persevered. By morning, I was frantic.

Our neighbor Macil Davis, then 84, reasoned that the hound certainly hadn't swum the Arkansas River, therefore must have gone south. Having been born in the place, she knew everybody down that way and was confident she'd find him. Macil's second phone call located Fred about five miles on the other side of the ridge.

Apparently, Fred had lost the trail after the deer crossed the highway. An old boy driving home from work found him standing on the double yellow line in the middle of Highway 60, looking confused. The dog wore a Little Rock license, but that couldn't be right, because the city was 50 miles away.

He'd been thinking of calling him "Clyde."

Blessedly, Fred took the lesson and quit hunting deer. We became famous in our part of the county as those folks who walked their dogs — a largely unknown activity in rural Arkansas. Basically, we walked each other. In summer, you could gauge the temperature by how far the bassets fell behind.

Due to her fondness for cooling off in farm ponds, Bun earned her second nickname: "The Spotted Submarine."

Then came Fred's terrible accident. A guy helping me mend fences ran him over with his pickup. Fred's pelvis was broken, and there was a possibility of spinal damage. He couldn't stand and wasn't moving his legs. We carried Fred home and set him gingerly on the floor. His napping partner Martin, an orange tabby kitten, lay beside him, purring.

After a few days, I saw Fred dreaming and moving all four feet in his sleep. No spinal damage. I devised a plan of hydrotherapy. Fashioning a bath towel sling, I dunked him in a 50-gallon water trough. With me holding him, Fred had to paddle to keep his head above water. Then I'd carry him back inside.

We did two-a-days for several weeks. And then one happy afternoon, Fred stood up uncertainly and started learning to walk again.

I tell you I like to cried, as people say in Perry County.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President." You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com

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