Throughout the school year Arthur had pestered his parents—he wanted a dog, a German shepherd, like the one Roy Rogers, his favorite cowboy, had. He asked for one as a Christmas present. No luck. He asked for one as a birthday present. Still no luck. His father was less than enthusiastic: “They cost too much. Make a mess.” All year long Arthur had to listen to his classmates talk about how great their dogs were without being able to add to the conversation.
One morning, a few days after the school year ended, Marguerite announced, “I'm going shopping in Patchogue. You kids come along.” Ruth and Arthur piled into the car. Since everything outside Port Jefferson and Suassa Park seemed like foreign territory to him, Arthur was especially excited. To the youngster, just getting to Patchogue was half the fun. For this six-year-old, the thirteen-mile journey on Route 112 never failed to fascinate.
Patchogue was bigger than Port Jefferson. It had way more stores. Marguerite parked the car along Main Street. The first stop was JCPenney to buy sandals for Ruth and sneakers for Arthur. Then, on to Swezey and Newins. Mom needed blouses and Dad, socks.
“Kids, we have one more stop to make.”
Arthur hoped it would be at the ice cream shop. It turned out to be even better. All three Berndts walked two blocks, ending up in front of the Patchogue Pet Store. Could it be at long last…?
“Mom, are we really…are we getting a puppy?”
“Yes, but only if you see one you like.” Of course he would.
“Hot dog!” Marguerite and Ruth laughed at the young boy’s unintentional play on words.
Marguerite opened the door to the shop and let Ruth go in. Then she called to her son, who was busy gazing into the store window. “Arthur, c’mon. Follow me. Let's go!”
“Mom. I picked him—I want him.”
He was pointing in the window. Marguerite came back down the steps, over to Arthur. There were several puppies frolicking on wood chips and shredded newspaper.
“The brownish one. He's neat.”
“Well, there are two brownish ones. The dark brown and black one or the light brown one?”
“The light one.”
They went inside and talked to the proprietor. He advised them that the dog Arthur had picked out was a purebred German shepherd. The dog cost $175. When Arthur saw his mother’s reaction to the price, his heart sunk. He was sure his mom would back out of her promise.
“Whew!” Marguerite thought awhile. She would have some explaining to do at home. In her husband’s eyes, this would be seen as a frivolous act. She might have to lie.
“Okay. We’ll take him. Does he have a name yet?”
“No. He's yours to name.”
“I can't take him today. We’ll be back on Saturday.” Marguerite left a deposit and exited the store with her two children. Heading to the car, Arthur was about as happy as he’d ever been in his life. “My own real dog. I can’t wait. How far away is Saturday, Mom?”
“Only four days. What are you going to name him?”
“Art, Roy Roger’s dog already has that name. Why don't you think of another one?”
Arthur got deep in thought. “I can't. That’s the only one I like.”
“Well, we’ll just have to come up with another name you like.”
On the ride back to Suassa Park, Arthur wracked his brain but always came back to Bullet. That evening Liz bailed him out. His sister had taken Latin in high school and she suggested Rex. At first, Arthur didn't like the name. He thought it sounded “funny.” When Liz explained to him it meant “king” in Latin, Arthur liked the idea that he would have royalty for a pet. Rex it was.
Later that day, Marguerite broke the news to her husband. She waited until he had his second beer and was at his happiest. “We bought a dog today. Cutest little thing.”
“I thought we agreed no dog for our son until he stops bedwetting.”
“Well, it just doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen any time soon. It doesn’t feel right to deprive him of a dog for that reason. Besides, Rex belongs to the whole family.”
August Berndt mulled over his wife’s comments and said, “I’ve only got two questions. Who’s going to take care of it?”
“Oh, all the kids are delighted with him. Liz can take him for long walks. I’m sure Ruth and Art will help out as best they can. He’s a German shepherd. He’ll be a good dog.”
“Second question, how much?”
“Well, we went back and forth. Finally, we agreed on $115. He wanted $200.”
“Jesus Christ! Well, you did jew him down pretty good. It’s July, but let’s consider this a Christmas present to all the children and leave it at that. $115. That’s a lot of money. I assume he’s a purebred at that price.”
“Yes. He has papers. I’ll get them when I pick him up next Saturday.”
Absorbed in a baseball game on TV and about to begin working on beer number three, August said nothing more about the impending family addition.
When Saturday arrived, Arthur, his mom, and both sisters returned to the pet store. Rex looked just as cute and frisky as he had a few days earlier. The pet shop owner apologized that the pedigree papers still hadn’t arrived from the breeder, but said he'd mail them to Marguerite as soon as he got them. Done deal.
Arthur was unsure how to handle the puppy so Ruth took him from the store owner’s hands and put him into a cardboard box Marguerite had brought along. The four Berndts returned to the car, cardboard box securely in Liz’s hands.
On the way home, Ruth got in front with Marguerite. Arthur and Liz sat in the back, Rex in the box between them. The young boy touched the puppy both out of curiosity and affection. Rex lightly gnawed on his fingers, but Arthur quickly realized there was little to fear and let the puppy nibble to his heart’s content. Nevertheless, every once in a while Rex got in a good nip with his baby teeth. Arthur would quickly yank his hand out of the box and shake it a bit, before bravely resuming his interaction with the weeks-old pup.
As soon as they got home and out of the car, Marguerite slipped a collar on Rex and attached a leash. She handed the leash to her son and let him walk the puppy around the yard before bringing him inside. Rex piddled outside numerous times, but not enough evidently; he had an accident as soon as he was let back into the house. The kitchen was designated his home until housebroken. After less than a month, Rex was allowed to enter all the downstairs rooms. He had a couple more accidents, then none. When Rex urinated inappropriately in the house, Arthur noticed the punishment his dog suffered wasn't nearly as severe as that he himself endured for wetting the bed.
That summer and fall Arthur and Rex were restricted to playing in the yard. By the time Rex was six months old, the two were allowed to go on short walks together. By then, they had become buddies for life.
Rex made another friend—Nicky. He was a black male dog of various and sundry breeds that lived two houses away from the Berndts. Having no aggressive side, Nicky was the definition of laid-back. He greeted everyone with a human-like grin on his face and a body wiggling from head to toe.
The two dogs hit it off so well that, if one was let out of the house, he’d lie down and wait at the edge of his property until the other came outside. Then the canine duo would take off for the abundant woodlands nearby. Hours later they’d return together, each ultimately heading for his home. Sometimes Arthur joined them on these jaunts, forming a happy trio.
Rex and Nicky became neighborhood fixtures, wandering around Suassa Park, either tending to their business, or hanging out with the local kids. They became unofficial pets for the entire community.
Nicky assumed he was welcome everywhere. He’d often allow himself into the Berndts’ garage or basement to sleep if either door had been left open. Luckily, even August Berndt saw the humor in a canine audaciously taking such liberties. Nicky may very well have been the only living creature that never stirred August’s ire.
Arthur was eager to help keep Rex clean. He volunteered to shampoo the dog on a regular basis. He considered it not a chore, but fun. The young boy got a kick out of how Rex, trying to shake himself dry during and after his baths, left both of them soaked. At least when Arthur got himself wet bathing the dog, he didn’t have to worry about getting in trouble.
Arthur, with his mother’s guidance, taught his dog how to stay, sit, lie down, come, and fetch. Rex proved to be a quick learner.
The family dog was also a quick learner when it came to August Berndt. After feeling the elder Berndt’s boot a few times, Rex knew to steer clear of him. In spite of this, when August was administering discipline to his son, the dog became a nuisance, attempting to break up what was going on. To eliminate Rex’s interference, August either ordered the dog to go into the basement, barricaded him in the kitchen, or put him outside—a timeout for the dog, but not for Arthur. If slow to obey August’s commands, Rex might also get a taste of the elder Berndt’s medicine. Once isolated, Rex could do no more than helplessly howl his disapproval over the youngster’s harsh treatment. Boy and dog felt each other’s pain.
Despite the punishing treatment he occasionally suffered at the hands of August Berndt, Rex held no grudges and made a great family pet, friendly and nonthreatening except when in watchdog mode. Then he became a soldier ready to do battle to the end, a staunch defender of his pack.
Although Rex was technically the family pet, Arthur was clearly his favorite. The two became an inseparable pair. Even before Rex arrived in his life, Arthur had gotten into the custom of escaping from the house at every opportunity, venturing out into the world alone. Now he had a four-legged companion that would devotedly and protectively follow him anywhere.
Around the time Rex (or Rexy, the nickname bestowed on him by his youthful master) graduated from puppyhood, he developed a disliking for Joe, the mailman. As a pup, Rex had ignored him. Now, if the dog happened to be out on the lawn when Joe arrived, he greeted the letter carrier with throaty growls, daring him to set foot on the property. The first time this happened Joe retreated, taking the Berndts’ mail with him.
Joe was no quitter. He was determined to live up to the postal service’s promise of delivery despite snow, sleet, ice, rain—and now, Rex. No easy task since the Berndt's mailbox was affixed to the house next to the front door, far from the road. Back at the post office his coworkers were betting each other on how long it would be before Joe turned in his mailbag and went back to tending bar.
Standard mail delivery morphed into a military action. The next time mail carrier and dog met, Joe arrived brandishing a long buckled strap in his hand. Bracing himself, the determined mail carrier headed for the house, knowing he had to travel the length of the driveway, then the flagstone walkway, and finally, up the steps of the stoop, all while being escorted in a most threatening manner by a berserk German shepherd. He and Rex did an uneasy dance along the way—Joe swinging the strap, and the dog alternately dodging it and lunging at his prey. Joe was able to keep his nemesis at bay, but it only served to further inflame Rex and convince the dog he was dealing with a mortal enemy. Later that day, Marguerite got a telephone call from Joe advising her that if Rex was not kept inside, the Berndts would have to start picking up their mail at the post office.
Never having had any other discipline problems with her dog, Marguerite didn’t like the idea of Rex being forced to stay in the house all day until the mail carrier had come and gone. She came up with an alternative course of action that Joe unenthusiastically signed on to.
For the next few weeks, the mailman only stopped at the house when Marguerite was inside with Rex. Taking off his mailbag, he waited on the road until Mrs. Berndt and her leashed dog exited the house and walked out to him. He then handed over the mail, and owner and dog went back inside. Rex behaved himself except for a couple of growls during the first days of the experiment. After three weeks, the procedure continued, but with Rex unleashed. There were no incidents.
Then, for another couple of weeks, after being greeted by Marguerite and Rex, and leaving his bag on the edge of the property, all three walked to the mailbox, into which Joe deposited the mail. By the end of this stage of training, Rex was clearly losing interest in Joe.
Finally came the day Rex was given the ultimate test. Joe, upon arriving, took off his bag and started carrying the Berndts’ mail up to the house, all the while being scrutinized by their dog, lying on the front yard. Marguerite remained inside, watching events through the screen door. With Joe halfway to his destination, Rex got up and scooted to the front stoop just as Joe was arriving there. Would he let Joe proceed? Joe went up onto the stoop, put the mail in the box, turned around, and headed back to the road. Rex, eyeing him warily, remained in place.
After a few more days of this final stage of training, Rex paid Joe scant attention. Marguerite and Joe concluded that all along it had been the mail bag antagonizing the dog, and not the human carrying it. Rex kept his opinion on the matter to himself.
Despite several phone calls from Marguerite, the owner of the pet shop never produced written proof that Rex was a purebred. All the other members of the Berndt family were grateful and pleasantly surprised that August let the matter go, apart from calling the pet shop owner a “fuckin’ swindler.”
Occasionally, Arthur played a game with Rex. He’d collapse on the ground and play dead. His dog always immediately lay down next to his fallen master. After a while, he’d get impatient and start whining, nudging the boy in an effort to bring him back to life. If Arthur kept up his act, Rex eventually would settle down next to the “corpse,” eyes riveted on him with concern. There the two would lie in frozen silence. Every so often Arthur would peek, comforted to see that his dog, motionless, was still staring at him. When Arthur finally sprang back to life Rex would too, jumping up and down, licking Arthur in the face, so happy to have him back. It was a cruel trick to play on the dog, but Arthur was desperate to feel that at least one other living creature in the world cared about him.