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I once saw a dog attempt to herd a parked car.

It was a gray day sometime in the early 1970s, after my uncle Oscar had finally decided to splurge on a car that was his-all-his and bought a Mercedes SEL 280.  It was a heavy, substantial car that was eminently suited to the senior partner at a Sweet Sixteen accounting firm, with a sunroof, a Blaupunkt stereo system, rare woods on the dashboard, plush seats designed by an orthopedic surgeon, and a silver-green paint job that made it look like a pale, elegant ghost in dim light.  It was big, it was comfortable, and it was perfect for weekend jaunts with Mum riding shotgun, Betty chewing gum in the back seat and looking for places for lunch before we'd even left Pleasant Hills, and me doing needlework.  

It also could accelerate almost as fast as sports car and was so perfectly engineered passengers couldn't tell the difference between 40 and 90.  This is why my uncle, normally a careful and conservative driver, racked up more than usual share of speeding tickets until he realized that he really needed to keep his eyes on the speedometer when tootling down the interstate.

As you can imagine, the car was his pride and joy.  

Oddly enough, it was also my uncle Lou's pride and joy.  He took it upon himself to wash the Mercedes on a regular basis, since clearly the gorgeous paint job would not have taken kindly to the tender mercies of the teenagers who worked at Sparkle Car Wash down on Route 51.  Louie even bought a couple of pieces of chamois leather to make sure that only the very softest and finest substances were used to wax and buff the finish to gleaming perfection, and splurged on special detergents.  It was as if he were somehow a co-owner of this symbol of his brother's success, even if the only times he drove it were when it needed an oil change or routine maintenance at the dealership.

Needless to say, Oscar didn't take the Mercedes to work every day.  He had a succession of Oldsmobiles and Buicks for that.  But long trips?  Oh yes.  The Mercedes was so much more comfortable than anything Detroit could produce that it was used almost exclusively on long vacations and trips to the Farm two hours north to visit his youngest brother.

The youngest brother, my uncle Bob, hasn't figured much in these diaries for the simple reason that I didn't see him very often.  The Farm, a 160 acre property in Venango County near the bustling metropolis of Knox (population minuscule and possibly growing the last time I looked), had been purchased by my grandparents sometime in the 1920s or 1930s as insurance against the economy going to hell, and once it did in the Crash of '29, the family split in two.  My grandfather and three of his sons (Charlie, Dan, and Bob) moved to the country to work the land and make sure International Paper didn't harvest more trees than their lease on the wooded areas allowed, while my grandmother stayed in Pittsburgh with two sons (Oscar and Lou, both of whom already had jobs in the city), Mum, and Betty.  

The oldest son, Julius, who had his own ideas about life, the universe, and everything, had decamped to work in a glass factory in Port Jervis, New York as soon as was feasible, which is why he has been my equivalent of Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Movie.

Regardless, the Farm proved a steady source of income and fresh vegetables in hard times, and by the early 40's almost everyone who wasn't either in uniform or doing war work in Pittsburgh had moved out there for fresh air, hard work, and the patriotic stewarding of the land.  Even after the war, when almost everyone had either moved to Pittsburgh, gotten their own farm, or passed on to wherever hardworking German-Americans go when they join the choir invisible, my uncle Bob continued to live and work the Farm with only occasional help from my cousin (another Bob, called “Little” even though he ended up 6'5”) and his neighbors.

It gets lonely out on a farm.  Really lonely.  Bob's only companions for much of the year were his neighbors (the nearest over half a mile away, with a family and responsibilities of his own), alcoholic beverages of the malt persuasion, a succession of dogs and barn cats, and pen pals of the female persuasion he met through a lonely hearts clearinghouse.  The last of these were particularly problematic, especially the one he actually married when I was in college, as the subsequent divorce a few years later was neither pleasant nor cheap (especially for Oscar, who ended up having to give her money to go away and bilk some other lonely bachelor).  

The pets were a different matter.  The cats, who had begun as the descendants of Mum's crazy cat lady phase, came and went, producing large quantities of kittens that populated the barn, the corn crib, and the outbuildings.  Most of the dogs were similarly unmemorable, although a beagle bitch named Ginger nearly excised a large chunk of skin from my forehead during a memorable visit when I was about eight.

And then there was Lad.

Lad was a handsome, amiable, somewhat psychotic Border collie.  Oscar had tried to talk Bob, who raised grain, vegetables, and trees, out of purchasing him on the reasonable grounds that Border collies are bred to herd, and only to herd, and go somewhat squirrelly if there is nothing to herd.  Bob, who had his mind set on owning a herding dog even though he'd sold the last of the dairy cows about a year earlier, scoffed at his brother.  His most recent canine companion, Bill, had recently died, and the Farm simply wasn't complete without a dog, so why not?  

Besides, dogs were dogs.  They ate, they slept, they excreted, they barked, and they shed. This one surely would be no different.  Besides, Border collies were supposed to be smart and obedient, so there was no need to worry.

In many ways Bob was right.  A handsome black and white fellow with silky fur and great composition, Lad was smart, and by and large he paid attention when Bob gave him a command.  He had a good personality, unlike the impeccably bred but antisocial Ginger and her pups, and if he spent a lot of his time trotting around outside looking mildly anxious, well, Bob had been thinking about getting some heifers and starting up the dairy again so eventually he'd have plenty to do.  He just had to be patient.

Humans can and do learn patience in the course of their lives.  Dogs, not so much.

Frustrated, bored, and thoroughly cowed by Ginger, Lad spent a lot of his time hanging out in the barn and the corn crib with the cats.  He never bothered the kittens (at least not after the first time Hilda, a grande dame who pumped out kittens at regular intervals until she was at least twelve, whacked him on the nose), but the cats proved remarkably unwilling to be herded.  By the time I was eleven, and Oscar had bought the Mercedes, Lad was a black beret and a pack of Gauloises away from being an existentialist, his location and species notwithstanding.

That was why he tried to herd the Mercedes one memorable autumn day.

Oscar and Mum would visit their brother periodically, Mum to cook and freeze enough meals that Bob wouldn't starve in between six packs of beer, Oscar to go over the books and make sure the Farm was running fairly smoothly.   Betty and I usually came along for the ride, me because I was a kid and had no say, Betty because it was that or fall asleep watching Saturday afternoon bowling on WTAE.  And since the Farm was far enough away that both Mum and Oscar would get backaches if they sat too long in one position, the Mercedes, beautiful, new, and exquisitely engineered for maximum driver and passenger comfort, was of course the car of choice.

And so on a gray and gloomy October day, we piled into the car soon after a breakfast that I don't remember because it was so early I'd almost fallen asleep over my cranberry juice, and headed toward the Farm.  Much of the trip was along the new interstate, but at least part of the journey was down a very steep mountain road and through the sleepy town of Emlenton, then over another new interstate and a succession of side roads.  Eventually we turned right at the house with white window trim and dark green hexagonal asphalt shingle siding, Oscar slowing down because this road was dirt, gravel, and the occasional sprinkling of oil to keep down the dust in the summer, and a car that was designed for the autobahn trundled along a rural route like a landbound Queen Elizabeth 2 transplanted to Conneaut Lake.

Fortunately the paint wasn't harmed by the gravel kicked up in our wake, or I think poor Louie would have cried when we got home.

A half mile later we pulled into the driveway, glided past an admiring (and thank God sober) Bob, and parked.  Lad came rushing up to greet us, Hilda and her latest brood washed their paws and yawned, and we debarked.  It was almost time for lunch, or at least time to start cooking lunch, and after the adults had caught up and Betty had pulled out a pack of cards so she could play Solitaire while Mum cooked, I ventured outside.

I was looking for Oscar, who had promised he would help me shuck this year's harvest of Kentucky White popcorn.  He'd gone outside a few minutes earlier to get something from the car, so I knew exactly where to go.  We'd parked right next to the dairy barn, kittycorner to the corn crib, and as the screen door from the wash house banged shut behind me, I could see the car in all its out of place majesty, waiting sedately for its master.

I could also see Oscar, standing in the middle of the lawn, hands on his hips.  He was shaking his head very slowly, and as I approached he folded his arms across his chest, produced a package of peppermint Chiclets from the pocket of his windbreaker, stuck one in his mouth, and began to chew.  

This was not a good sign. Oscar normally didn't chew gum, and usually the Chiclets appeared only when Betty was being particularly annoying, probably to keep his mouth occupied with something other than telling her to stop bothering Mum.  Betty was in the house, though, so why was he chewing gum?  And why did my normally peaceable uncle have such grim, disgusted expression on his face?  The car was fine, everyone was alive, the Farm showed no signs of exploding or disappearing into a sinkhole or -

That's when I saw Lad, crouched flat to the ground, staring fixedly at the Mercedes, the only sign that he was alive the occasional twitch of a silky black ear.

I pushed my glasses up my nose and squinted to get a better look.  Lad could be moody, yes, but normally he didn't imitate a piece of lawn statuary.  Was a wild animal under the car?  A fox, perhaps, or maybe a skunk?  A squirrel?  One of Hilda's multitudinous descendants?  Hilda herself?

Oscar sighed, very softly, as I joined him.  And then, without so much as a flick of his tail, Lad lunged forward like an avenging angel, teeth bared -

And nipped at the tailpipe of Oscar's brand new Mercedes-Benz.

My jaw dropped.  Oscar's jaws worked a bit faster.  The dog, snorting slightly, retreated a few feet, scuttled to the side, and made what I can only describe as a strafing run at the left rear tire, then darted backwards, dropped flat in the dust, tensed, and repeated the entire procedure.

Oscar handed me a Chiclet.  I accepted it and began to chew.  Neither of us spoke for a long, long time as we watched Lad attempt to fulfill the instinct that generations of dour Scotsmen had bred into his cerebral cortex.

Finally Oscar spoke.

"I told Bob not to buy that dog," he said, and strode toward the corn crib.

Fortunately or unfortunately, this was the only time Lad attempted to channel his frustration into anything more noteworthy than attempting to keep the barn cats in line.  He didn't try to herd humans, didn't chase the few cars that came anywhere near the Farm, and generally behaved himself.  I'm not sure when he passed from this life, but it is my sincere hope that wherever he is now, he has a fair share of cows, sheep, Indian running ducks, and even kittens to keep him busy.  Collies, whether Smooth, Rough, Border, or Sheltie, are working dogs, and aside from the overbred show dogs that feature in sentimental films and television series, they need something to do.  That my uncle didn't understand this was a real shame, since Lad was a good dog who deserved more stimulation than trying to herd an inanimate object.

The same cannot be said about his namesake.  

Younger readers probably have never heard of Sunnybank Lad, hero of several wildly anthropomorphized books of shorts stories at the turn of the last century, but those of my generation and a bit earlier almost certainly read about this suspiciously human-like Rough Collie.  Lad, who was owned and immortalized by Albert Payson Terhune of Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, was one of the most famous pets of his day.

It's easy to see why.  Beginning in 1915 with the publication of the stories that were collected in 1919’s Lad, A Dog and continuing until 1934's Lad of Sunnybank, Terhune chronicled his dog’s adventures in a series of popular short stories.  And why shouldn’t he?  Not only was Lad an unusually good looking specimen, “thoroughbred in spirit as well as in Blood,” he had

The benign dignity that was a heritage from endless generations of high-strain ancestors...[h]e had, too, the gay courage of a d'Artagnan, and an uncanny wisdom. Also--who could doubt it, after a look into his mournful brown eyes--he had a Soul.
This quality of Soul, along with uncanny intelligence, utter loyalty to the Master (Terhune), the Mistress (his second wife), and the Boy (their fictional child, since the  Terhune were graced only with a daughter from his first marriage), and a habit of getting into more scrapes than a stick of butter at a biscuit-eating contest, catapulted Lad to the height of fame.  Among Lad’s more notable exploits, at least according to his faithful owner/Boswell:

-    Takes a beating meant for his lovely but fickle mate, Lady, then defeats a rival collie, Knave, for her affections;

-    Kills a copperhead snake before it can bite a visiting child, then buries himself in mud for four days to draw the poison;

-    Silently defeats a burglar so as not to disturb the Mistress as she recovers from pneumonia;

-    Teaches his only offspring, Wolf, “The Law of the Place” while Lady recovers from distemper;

-    Wins both blue ribbons for conformation AND a gold cup at a sheepdog trial; and

-    Defending the Place against intruders human and canine, including several burglars, a half-breed dog that is clearly part pit bull, and other collies.

Not only that, Lad was clean, honest, obedient, brave, well trained, reverent, obeyed the Scouting law, loyal, resourceful, and intelligent enough not only to know that mud would draw poison, but to navigate his way home from New York after falling from a moving car and having to cut across the countryside to his home…where he beat his owners to the Place and was waiting for them when they got home after a frantic search for him!  Isn’t that amazing?  

If all this sounds a bit too – how to put this, saintly? – for a dog, the adventures themselves were exciting enough that readers might be forgiven for overlooking qualities that would be better applied to such turn of the century heroes as Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, than an animal.  It’s almost as if Terhune were an established writer instead of a simple dog breeder with an unusually smart, charismatic beast.

That this was indeed the case should not be a surprise to alert readers of these diaries.

Albert Payson Terhune was born in New Jersey in 1872 to Presbyterian theologian Edward Payson Terhune and his novelist wife, Mary, who wrote under the name of Marian Harland.  Educated at Columbia University, the young Terhune took more after his mother than his father, and soon was working as a newspaper reporter in New York.  This made him enough money that he was able to marry a few years later, although his wife, Lorraine Bryson, sadly died a few days after giving birth to their only daughter.

Undaunted, Terhune married again and continued to work.  His first books, which ranged from short stories about his colleges to a novelization of a popular play, several travelogues, and a boxing manual that drew on his own distinguished amateur career (he was good enough to fight the likes of Gentleman Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Jim Jeffries in exhibition matches).  The most intriguing of these early works has to be 1914’s Dad, which he co-wrote with future Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, and if anyone ever comes across a copy, please let me know since I haven’t been able to track this undoubted masterpiece down.

By 1909 Terhune was able to buy his parents’ old summer home, Sunnybank, and by 1912 he’d moved himself, his wife Anice, and his daughter there permanently.  His books were selling well enough that he was able to quit the newspaper business and write full time, and soon he was raising Rough Collies and exhibiting them on the show circuit.  These are the shaggy, exuberant beasts that come to mind when the average person thinks of collies, and Terhune had found himself attracted to them after his father acquired a beautiful albeit unregistered male named – you knew this was coming – Lad.

Terhune basically coopted Lad and used him as the foundation sire for Sunnybank Kennels despite his lack of registration papers; the dog was a magnificent specimen who reportedly stemmed from excellent bloodlines, and Terhune had no problem registering his puppies with the American Kennel Club.  Lad himself won a show prize in 1914, and by the middle teens Terhune’s publisher was urging him to write about this beautiful, loyal animal.

This Terhune did.  Starting in 1915 or thereabouts, Lad and the other dogs soon inspired him to write a series of magazine short stories that appeared in “slick” publications like Red Book, The Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, and, surprisingly, that doyenne of American literary magazines, The Atlantic.   Terhune eventually decided to gather them into book form, on the grounds that if Jack London (whom he considered a hack) could hit big with The Call of the Wild, why, his noble Lad and his companions could do the same.

The short stories, which combined heroism, sentimentality, and excitement with exhortations about “firm but kindly discipline” as the way to train both children and animals, were popular enough that Terhune decided that they needed to be printed in a permanent form.  That they also included plenty of talk about uncomfortable subjects like Lady’s “high-strain ancestors,” the horrors of “half-breeds” like canine villain Rex that might revert to “atavistic” behavior like attacking humans, collies using their "wolf instincts" to solve problems, and some less than flattering portraits of the “hill folk,” racial minorities, and working class people who lived around Sunnybank…well, weren’t collies a breed, which meant that only the superior dogs (like Lad) should be bred, and those that didn’t match the breed standard (like Lad’s son Wolf) should be kept merely as pets?  And if good breeding applied to animals, of course it applied to humans as well.

After a few false starts and rejections, the first group of Lad stories were published in 1919 as Lad:  A Dog, thinly veiled racism and all, and in the midst of the Red Scare, the post-Great War bust, and a wave of race riots at least partially inspired by Birth of a Nation and other quality fiction about the noble whites putting the ignoble non-whites in their place, Terhune found himself with a major bestseller on his hands.  Lad, brave, noble, and invincible even at the advanced age of 13, was so popular that Terhune found himself besieged with demands for more stories about Lad, or barring that, about his dogs.

Or other people’s dogs.  Or completely fictional, made-up dogs.  Oh, the adoring masses would settle for the likes of Black Caesar’s Clan or The Secret of A Sea-Dream House, but what they really wanted was more about brave, loyal, smart, handsome, reverent, clean, obedient four-footed companion animals of the canine persuasion.  

Terhune, no fool, was happy to oblige.  In between Lad stories (which were of course republished in book format), he started writing dog books.   Almost all of them concerned Rough Collies (of course), but the dogs themselves ranged from Wolf (Lad’s son, who was devoted to the Boy despite not having his father’s magnificent show-quality conformation) to the gorgeous but sickly Treve (who was devoted to the Mistress and tragically died young of a heart defect) to Lochinvar Bobby (the runt of the litter who ran wild for several months, survived and thrived, and later went on to triumph at dog show after dog show under the loving care of his humble-but-crafty working class owner).  By the time he died in the 1940s, Terhune had churned out over thirty additional dog stories, all of them popular, as well as numerous non-dog stories, a written description of Sunnybank and its kennels, and plenty of adventure stories.

For all their popularity, there are some definite flaws in the average Terhune book.  These include, in no particular order:

-    Repetitive plots (hero does physical battle with villain in defense of the helpless and the weak).

-    Interchangeable heroes (noble, brave, loyal, smart, disciplined, and averse to violence albeit more than able to put the smack down on the bad guys).

-    Perfect obedience obtained through the use of fair and loving correction rather than violence.  This particularly applies in a story where Wolf, Lad and Lady’s puppy, bonds with Lad rather than Lady because she (being, well, a dog) disciplines him with nips and cuffs, while Lad teaches by wise example.  

-    Odd sexual politics (the Master is well meaning but bumbling, the Mistress wise and patient, but the Master is still in charge despite relying on her advice; Lady is a rotten mother but Lad adores her anyway and drives away his rival, Knave).

-    Dogs that act a lot more like humans than dogs.  This was noticed almost immediately by fellow dog breeders, who complained bitterly that Terhune was writing about humans with four feet and shaggy coats, not actual collies.

-    Constant insistence that the Law of the Place forbade violence except in the defense of the property and its inhabitants, yet almost equally constant threats of violence (the Master jokes about beating the Boy with an axe-handle or a bale stick; he does beat Lad for growling at him in defense of Lady; Lad constantly fights off other dogs, those hill folk burglars, and even a rampaging bull).

-    Racism and classism that might have passed  unnoticed a century ago but that all but assault the contemporary reader.  The Place is owned by a family rich enough to own an estate and breed show dogs, after all, and jealous poachers, inbred country folk, homeless tramps, and wandering Negroes all attempt to partake of its riches without asking leave.  Add in a dislike of the nouveau riche such as financier “Hamilcar Q. Glure” and a near-constant drumbeat in favor of “old style collies” with broad heads, wolfish instincts, and muscular bodies instead of the more elegant, effete, Borzoi-headed dogs that were becoming popular in breeding circles, and the result is a peculiar mix of eugenics (for people) and atavism (for dogs).

Given all this, it’s little wonder that Terhune himself once characterized the Lad books as “hack writing,” but that didn’t prevent him from continuing to give the public what they wanted.  The public bought books, after all, and the royalties not only paid for the upkeep on Sunnybank, but the food, water, vet bills, and show expenses for the collies.  Of course not all of the money went to Terhune’s lifestyle – he donated to the Red Cross and the Blue Cross in Lad’s name, earning the dog Honorary Crosses for his charitable work – and some had to be devoted to handling the thousands of visitors who flocked to Sunnybank to see the Place, meet the current dogs, and see Lad (or his grave after he died at the age of 16 in 1918).  One year Terhune found himself with over 1,700 uninvited pilgrims, which was neither easy nor pleasant, and he ended up closing Sunnybank to visitors for a day or so out of sheer self-preservation.

Eventually the popularity of Terhune’s books faded (except, of course, for the Lad books, which have never gone out of print).  He died in 1942, still loved for his dog stories, and was followed by Anice in 1964.  She lived well thanks to an arrangement with her husband’s publisher that gave her a lifetime annuity in exchange for the rights to the Lad books, but after her death Sunnybank deteriorated dramatically.  The house and most of the outbuildings were eventually torn down, but the grounds are now the Terhune Memorial Park in Wayne, New Jersey.  

There visitors can behold the graves of Lad himself and several of the other Sunnybank collies, including Bruce (Ch. Sunnybank Goldsmith), Treve (Ch. Sunnybank Sigurd), and Rex, who was actually a guard dog and not an evil half-breed menace.  There’s even a monument to Wolf, Lad’s son, who had the honor of an obituary in the New York Times after he reportedly saved another dog and was hit by a train, and the gravestone of Sunnybank Fair Ellen, who was blind from birth but made up for it thanks to an unusually good temperament.

Terhune’s books are available both in print (including new children’s versions that excise all the icky eugenics in favor of straight-up sentimentality) and in e-format thanks to Project Gutenberg (where inquiring readers can see all the flaws for themselves).  There are annual gatherings at Sunnybank by Terhune enthusiasts and collie advocacy groups, and a fine collection of Terhune memorabilia in the historic Van Riper-Hopper Historic House Museum a few miles away.  He may not be as popular as he was a century ago, but it’s safe to say that Albert Payson Terhune’s tales of Lad and his friends will be with us for the foreseeable future.


Do you own a copy of one of Terhune's books?  Did you read them as a child?  Did your family have a collie?  A dog named Lad?  A Border Collie who didn't have enough to do?  A Mercedes SEL?  It's Saturday night and you know what that means....


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Sep 21, 2013 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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