Trigger warnings: Dogs. Contains graphic images.
The couple weeks before the semester starts often seem busier than any week during the semester. And as a writing professor, that’s saying something. But stacks of paper can’t compete with trying to make sure the writing assignments are perfect, figuring out new readings to stimulate students’ curiosity, determining how to fit everything onto the calendar without unduly overburdening the students. However, the beginning of the semester is a hopeful time– New students to learn from and the thought that, maybe this year, I will grade all those papers in a timely manner. But the hopefulness requires planning to become a reality, and these are difficult tasks. And difficult tasks often call for beer. And beer calls for company.
I texted a few colleagues, told them I was going to Bob Roe’s for lunch, and to do some semester prep with beer, and I walked out of the library, where my office is housed, into the bright August sun. The walk to Bob Roe’s, a local watering hole/pizza joint, is roughly a mile from campus, out the library, down Garretson, to Transit, to the parking lot shared by a dozen failed businesses. But a mile isn’t a big deal to me—I’d been walking a mile to and from campus every morning and afternoon for over a year. The walking helps clear my mind, gives me some exercise, and allows for time to listen to the litany of podcasts I subscribe to. I’m not sure what I listened to on the way to the restaurant, but I’ll never forget what I was listening to on the way home.
The walk was uneventful, as most walks tend to be, and I made it to Bob Roe’s in a little over 15 minutes. The birds were probably chirping. The leaves were probably rustling. Children were probably laughing and crying. But I had my earbuds in, and whatever I was being entertained by or learning about was more important to me than ambient noise. Fifteen minutes isn’t a bad time for me, walking a mile, but I was hungry, and I had work to do. My shoulder bag with a brand-new work computer in it didn’t weigh me down. I’m a young, spry walker, damnit, and I had lunch to eat.
Walking into Bob Roe’s in the summer is jarring. It’s a family-friendly place with the atmosphere of a basement dive bar. The sports memorabilia and neon signs on the wall don’t exactly light up the place, and August sun moving into 40-year-old incandescent light fixtures doesn’t make for the easiest transition. I blinked my eyes a few times to get used to it, but I’ve walked to this place so many times, I could probably have navigated to our preferred table blind. And mostly, I did. Finally settling into the uncomfortable green vinyl of our corner booth, I threw my bag down, retrieved my computer, and ordered a Fat Tire, which appeared mere moments later in the familiar half-pint-size Mason Jar mug. Amber frothiness slides down my gullet and eases some of the August humidity, felt even inside an air-conditioned restaurant. The screen of my Mac makes the place feel a bit more illuminated.
I’m trying to hammer out the course calendar when Jeremy and Jessica arrive. Semester planning and course readiness slip from my mind as two of my favorite people slide into the booth across from me.
“What’s up, assholes,” I probably say.
“Shut up. What are you drinking?” they might reply.
We banter like this all the time. Jeremy usually playfully punches me on the arm at some point, and I make fun of his balding dome. Jessica comments on how childish we are, and we all laugh. A lot. Laughter is what bonds us—more than our common employer, more than us counseling each other through good times and bad, more than the early mornings teaching together or the late nights drinking together. Laughter bonds us. And we all feel loved.
We order wings.
Hours pass as we kibitz about life. Hours pass as we work on course prep. Hours pass as we make fun of our colleagues. Hours pass as we console one another about life’s worries. But the hours pass. And no matter what, we laugh. At life. At course prep. At colleagues. At life’s worries. We laugh through all of it because the trio brings comfort, safety, and hilarity. And the wings fill our bellies with fire.
“I should probably head out,” I—definitely—say at 2:15.
“We could give you a ride, in about a half hour. You wanna wait?”
“Nah, I like the walk.”
I pay and head back out into August. The transition out of Bob Roe’s during the summer is just as jarring. The biggest difference, for me, a sufferer, along with 18-35% of the population (according to Wikipedia) of Photic Sneeze Reflex, is the double sun-sneeze that always lurks outside every door. I look around, sneeze a couple times, and start down the sidewalk on Transit Ave.
Transit will eventually turn into Morningside, which will intersect with South Palmetto, the street on which I live. But Transit also connects to Garretson, the route back to work. It was only 2:20 when I walked to the fork with Garretson, and I was tempted to just walk home. Rebekah and the boys wouldn’t be at home, and I could have an hour to myself on the couch. But I also had a cord in my bag that belonged to Tech Services and needed to be returned. Hour to myself? Return the cord? Hour to myself was winning, until I remembered that I probably wouldn’t be on campus tomorrow. Tech Services might need my cord before Wednesday. Fuck it. I have time, and I can return the cord now. I’d already crossed Transit, thinking that I might want to stop at the flea market on the way home to look for some crazy trophy for the Orange City fantasy football league. But I could stop on the way home after the trek to Tech Services and still be home in time for the family.
I trudge down Garretson, walking toward campus. John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman fill my ears with bullshit from The Bugle Podcast (a rerun, but I find it to be a perfect sonic companion, anyway). The walk is my earlier walk, just in reverse, and I figure the only difference between “to Bob Roe’s” and “from Bob Roe’s” will be that the downhill and uphill portions of the walk will be reversed. And then I hear the dog.
The houses in this portion of Sioux City are above the sidewalk. Sidewalks are cut into the yards, much like freeways cut through the rolling hills of Eastern Iowa. The tiering of front yards is done differently by different houses. Cinder blocks. Railroad ties. Poured cement. Mortared brick or stone. But no matter what, most of the houses’ front yards are about head height during this portion of the walk. Which is why the white muscular dog that runs at me is so scary—usually it would be about knee-high, but as it runs and barks toward me, on the top tier of this two-tiered front lawn (they used railroad ties), I freak out a little. I’m not used to a dog’s mouth being head height. But I keep walking. Don’t show fear. Dogs feed on fear, and I didn’t want this dog to feed on me. Just ignore it and keep walking—this has worked in the past, and it’ll work now.
It didn’t work.
My left ankle flares with pain. The fucker bit me! He continues to snarl as I turn around and swiftly kid the dog in his stupid head. Or at least I tried. After one final, angry bark, he runs up the steps to the front yard and retreats to the back of the house.
Four rivulets of blood run south on my leg. The amount of blood is less surprising than how bloody my sock is already. I stand, dumbstruck, unsure of how to respond. The fucker bit me! As pain, anger, and revenge swirl around in my mind, rationality wedges its way in. Take a picture of the house so I remember the address. Take a picture of the wound so the evidence looks fresh. Walk home. Clean and bandage my ankle. Call animal control. Send Animal Control pictures. Have dog euthanized. End scene.
I made it all the way to “Walk home,” or at least the beginning of that step. A few dozen feet closer to home. That’s as far as my rational plan was carried out when I hear the barking again. But this time it’s louder. This time it’s doubled. This time two dogs come running around the side of the house, at head height, and run at me, full-tilt. I learn later that both dogs are Akita/Blue Heeler mixes.
The Akita is an old breed, descended from dogs in the Akita prefecture of Japan, which were called “Matagi,” which can simply mean “hunting dog” or “bear hunting dog.” These dogs were known for their ferocity and strength, holding large prey at bay while waiting for the hunter. Even today, Akitas are known to be territorial and fairly vicious, and have, at times, been banned in Ireland, Bermuda, Malaysia, Singapore, and New York City. According to a compilation of studies done by The Daily Beast, Akitas are the fourth most dangerous dogs in the U.S., based on number of attacks, maimings, and deaths, behind only Pit Bulls, Chow Chows, and Rottweilers. Adult Akita males average between 100-130 pounds.
Blue Heeler is a nickname for an Australian Cattle Dog, based on the coloring of its coat. Sometimes referred to as a Red Heeler or Queensland Heeler, these dogs were bred in Australia to help herd cattle over the vast expanses of the harsh Australian landscape. Wikipedia notes that, the Blue Heeler “[was] originally bred to herd by biting, and is known to nip running children. It forms a strong attachment to its owners, and can be protective of them and their possessions.” Adult Heelers average between 33-49 pounds. In the previously mentioned Daily Beast study, Heelers are the 10th most dangerous dog in the U.S. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had a crossbreed of banned bear hunter and biting cow herder running straight at me. I’m not nearly as large or intimidating as a bear or a cow; I was easy prey. And with the earlier injury, they could smell blood.
As they rushed me, I kicked out. My bloody Converse All Stars seemed to have little effect. I’m pretty sure I connected with one of them, but I barely slowed it down. The two dogs looked incredibly similar. White bodies, with very little coloring other than that. Powerful jaws snapping at me, short powerful legs propelling them forward. The only discernable difference between the two was the thing around their necks. The first dog, the one who bit me and ran away, was wearing a cute little blue scarf around his neck. It was shockingly out of place on his violent visage. The other dog had a 10-foot chain trailing behind him, with a spiraled stake at the end, that had been keeping him in the back yard and he had ripped out of the ground. But while this minor aspect of their appearance was different, their actions were similar. I attempted to keep their fanged maws from me. Kicking. Punching. Swinging my shoulder bag, brand new work computer inside. But the attacks kept on coming. The irrational took over and fight turned to flight. In retrospect, and with my current understanding of the dogs I was dealing with, flight was a bad decision. Like they were bred to do, they nipped at my heals. I tried running up a set of steps toward a neighbor’s front door, to knock and get help, but this was my undoing. They caught me at the top of the stairs, and as their teeth sank into flesh, I toppled.
“HELP! HELP!” I screamed, and with one final swing of the bag, to no effect, I threw it at Chain’s head. I kept screaming, looking at the door I was closest to. At the door of the house from whence the mutts came. At the doors across the street. Unlike my mouth and the mouths of the dogs, the doors stayed shut and silent.
I attempted fending off the creatures with my fists and my forearms. So my fists and forearms were bloodied. I attempted to kick out, but found it difficult to move my legs when my flesh was imprisoned within the mouths of the dogs, their teeth entrenched in my legs. On my back, I was helpless and screaming. Chain had ahold of my left leg, while Scarf was ripping the meat off my right. I noticed another difference between the two. Scarf liked to gnaw on a specific spot, but Chain wanted to taste all of me. On my left was a dog who was biting, shaking my bitten leg, and then moving farther up my body. On the right was a dog who ripped away at the shin-portion of my leg. At one point, he had what looked to be a chicken breast in his mouth. How had that gotten there? Why was such a big cut of chicken on my leg? Maybe that’s why they attacked me! Had I strapped raw chicken to my leg and forgotten to take it off? These are the types of questions disbelief allows you to ask. In reality, the dog had ripped my tibialis anterior off my shin bone, starting at the top, and was attempting to completely detach it. Skin and bits of flesh kept the muscle attached to my leg, but flopping away from my bone. He decided to work around to the back of my leg and start working on my calf. As odd as it may sound, I was less worried about him. He was doing the bulk of the damage, but the other dog was slowly moving toward more vital areas.
I wish I hadn’t thrown my bag. It lay, uselessly, ten feet from my location. I could shove it in one of their mouths. I could wrap the strap around one of their necks. But in that moment, I was more just sad because it was a present from my kids. I might never see them again, so it’d be nice to hold onto the bag. I’ve worn that bag on my walks to and from work ever since Father’s Day 2012. It was safety and security. It hadn’t let me be attacked by dogs before. And I threw it!
Chain is on my upper thigh.
Scarf’s snout is covered in blood as he continues to wreak havoc on my lower leg.
A second car.
“Are you hurt?”
“They’re attacking me. Please help!”
A large man, early 20s, taller than me, heavier than me, but not fat, comes barreling toward the scene. A woman, mid-40s, curly, long brown hair, runs behind. The man yells “Get off!” and kicks Chain in the face. He accomplished what I couldn’t! Chain let go of my thigh and runs away before he gets to anything more vital. “Get out of here!” Scarf is kicked, yelps, and runs a safe distance away.
The woman kneels down. “I’m a nurse. Let’s get your leg up. NAME, call 911!” But he didn’t need to be told. He was already on the phone, patrolling the area between the dogs and me. I hear snippets of his side of the conversation. “Attacked . . . dogs . . . ambulance . . . still alive . . . don’t know, but the dogs are still here . . . come quick, he’s losing a lot of blood.”
Now that the dogs aren’t on me, I try to look at anything but my legs. I see the bag.
“Make sure my wife gets my bag!”
I’m fascinated with my bag. Because it isn’t my leg.
The woman half carries me, half helps me limp toward the road. She sees that I can’t support my leg in the air, and she wants to use the car to help prop it up. Amazingly, I can shuffle! I can move! I’m alive!
“Lie back down, and put your leg up there,” she demands. I comply. But sadly, a propped up leg is a leg in plain sight. My right Converse All Star is settled nicely against the deep maroon of the car’s exterior. But my shoe isn’t normal. My shoes were fairly new, and now the whites are all dirty. How did they get so red? Further. My sock is completely soaked in blood. Further. Loose chunks of flesh hang in awkward angles. Rivulets of blood run off them.
“I’m checking your heart rate. Keep breathing.”
I haven’t looked at my left leg, but I know it can’t be worse than my right. I try to move my foot, and it moves, but pain screams up my leg. I notice for the first time the bite marks on my arms. I’m fascinated by a perfect circle indentation on my left forearm. How can something so bloody be so white at the same time, I wonder? Bone? My right arm fared worse than my left. There are no apparent bite marks, but Scarf’s claws had done a number on me. Long gashes. Bruises already forming.
“How are you feeling? Are you lightheaded?”
“I’m going to call my wife. Can you make sure she gets my computer bag?”
I was in the hospital for around 24 hours while they stapled me back together and cleaned my flesh to make sure the bacteria in the dogs’ mouths wouldn’t stay imprisoned in my legs. My legs had somewhere around 52 staples in them.
I was in bed, barely able to walk, for the next two weeks. Clouded by pain pills, I barely remember the string of wonderful people who came to visit me. I know my family was loved and supported, but I remember little.
The pain meds made my memory so fuzzy that I stopped taking them, probably too early. I missed the first day of class, and it made me so angry that my life was disrupted by these dogs that I borrowed a cane from a good friend who has Muscular Dystrophy and limped my way from the car, which I probably shouldn’t have been driving because I had two bad legs, to class, so I could feel a sense of normalcy in my life. I made it to class but I taught in a state of painful delirium because I had stopped taking my meds 2 days earlier. I wasn’t ready to teach. I had gone back to work too early. I could barely sleep. For most of my life, I had been sleeping on my back, but all that lying on my back reminded me of was me, on my back, being eaten by monsters. Our neighborhood was full of households with dogs, and at all times of the day, dogs would start barking and I would tense up to the point of cramping. I decided to get help, and thankfully, it wasn’t too late.
The PTSD therapy that I attended for over a year was focused on attempting to see the dog attack as merely one moment in life instead of THE moment in life. In order to accomplish this, my therapist and I relived the dog attack experience as a moment in my life’s timeline over, and over, and over. Week after week. After week. After week. The first session left me so weak I almost fell down in the bathroom. It was the most exhausting workout I had ever undertaken, and all I had done was sit on the couch, listening to my (amazing) therapist read the dog attack experience back to me time and time again. Therapy was, in some ways, more difficult than the attack itself. Rather than just lie there and scream for help, I had to confront my pain head on. But I did. And my wife helped me. And my kids helped me. And my family helped me. And my friends helped me. And Morningside College was supportive of my healing and didn’t bat an eye at the amount of time I needed to take to be in therapy.
And slowly, my life came back together.
Two years after the attack, my boys wanted a pet. They knew my feelings toward dogs, so they tried to come up with creative solutions. A Russian tortoise! Those live 80 years. And they smell. Fish? But they wanted to play with the pet. A cat? Only if you never want Grandpa or Uncle Justin or Aunt Carla to visit you ever again. An Iguana? Mom really doesn’t want to have cartons of live crickets in the house to feed to it. A dog?
I wasn’t quite ready. I had started reintegrating my friends’ dogs back into my life. But in my own house?
Eventually, after talking it over with Rebekah, we surprised the kids with a trip to the pound. The dog we had gone to adopt had been adopted 10 minutes before we got there, and our youngest melted into a puddle of tears. I was disappointed, too. I would have been comfortable with that dog. And then the woman behind the counter, in an effort to console my youngest, told us that there was a really sweet, small dog named Rocky that was waiting for a forever home. He was a bit broken, a bit abandoned by the world, but he was a dog with a good soul. He was a kindred spirit. And he helped finally heal me, not fully, but to a point where I feel like myself again.
David Elder is an associate professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He earned his PhD in English and Composition from Texas Christian University. He is married to a wonderful woman and is the proud father of two amazing boys. Rocky chose him as much as he chose Rocky.
Listen to his podcast: podcastreviewpodcast.com