A Dog Named Jake

Thomas Hart Benton brought this essay, both an obituary and a biography of a 
dog named Jake, to the office of the Vineyard Gazette in August 1946 and asked editor Henry Beetle Hough whether he cared to publish it. Hough did, and here 
is the story that the famous painter and Island summer resident wrote about a boy (his son T.P.) and his dog.

He was with us for eleven years before he died.
Rita found him on a farm west of Kansas City. She was learning to ride a horse there and he followed her about. He was friendly, and Rita took to him. The farmer who owned him saw this and said, “If you’ll give that dog a good home you can have him.” So he was brought to our house.    
T.P., our boy, who was then eight years old, was delighted. So was the dog, but because he had never been in a house he was a little gawky and clumsy, and slid on the rugs. He was named Jake because he was a country dog, a country jake who hadn’t learned city ways.
Jake had a laughing face. His mouth was so set that, active or in repose, he had to smile. Even when he was sad, as when he was not permitted to go with us in the car, this smile persisted. His mournful moments had thus the appearance of an act. There was also something 
humorous about him which made you say, “Jake, you old faker,” and which also too frequently made you yield to him and take him along whether you wanted to or not. Jake became a very adept actor. He calculated his effects and in the course of years became master of most of the family situations that concerned him.
Jake was a traveler. He sat with T. P. in the back seat of our car on the long trips from Kansas City to the summers on Martha’s Vineyard. He was fascinated by the speeding world out of the window. He would sit upright on his haunches, his tongue rolling out of his laughter, his ears erect and with the spit of well-tasted pleasure dripping off his lips. When he got tired he’d lie down on the seat and he and T.P. would battle for room. They loved each other.
On Menemsha Pond T.P. had a rowboat with a small centerboard. He rigged this up with a homemade mast and a three-cornered sail and called it the Red Jacket. It was supposed to be a pirate ship. Every afternoon T.P. and Jake would board this vessel and sail the pond. Sometimes Jake would sit in the stern with T.P. and sometimes by himself in the bow. He would bark at the gulls. If he got tired of this he’d jump overboard and swim to land, sometimes nearly half a mile. Then he’d bark at T.P. from the shore, running up and down, full of a tense glory of life.
In the winter, back in Kansas City, Jake went along when his pardner was taken to school. He learned the way, and sometimes when the long wait for the return trip was too tedious, he’d slip away and run the two miles or more to the schoolhouse and wait outside until closing time. Then he’d play with T.P. and the other boys until Rita arrived. He went coasting and skiing and 
participated in all the games that eight- and ten-year-olders devise.
After three years had passed, Rita took T.P. to Italy to visit her mother. This was a sad time for Jake. Up to now he’d given me little attention. Rita fed him and T.P. played with him. Of what use I might be he had little need to consider. I was just there, good enough to shake hands with occasionally but not important. Now, however, he clung to me, and I took him on a long roundabout tour of the South which ended, after seven weeks, at the docks in New York where we met the boat returning his real master and mistress.
There was a high rail fence between the passageway for debarking passengers and the people who had come to meet them. I stood by this fence trying to catch a glimpse of Rita and T.P. in the crowd of voyagers. 
But Jake beat me to it. The chain leash in my hand twisted suddenly and before I knew it Jake’s full-grown 
seventy pounds of muscle and tawny hair was soaring over the fence.
No one who saw that meeting of boy and dog could ever forget it. The travelers and those who met them stood aside to watch the play of Jake’s ecstasy. They forgot their own emotions in the more intense one of a delighted animal. This was a high point of life and those who saw, recognized it.
Jake and T.P. grew older. They continued sailing in summers each year, now in a larger boat. Jake didn’t much like the later boats. They went over in the wind too much and he jumped overboard 
oftener. But he could accustom himself to changes. He accepted things.    
When T.P. started playing the flute over long practice periods he lay quietly at his feet, though he would have preferred to be out and doing. When we had musical evenings he took his place by T.P.’s music stand and after things got started he’d wander about among the guests to be petted. Sometimes he’d nibble on the back of one of our cats. 
Jake loved cats.
When Jessie was born into our family, Jake was opposed to her. He would turn his head disdainfully away as she was brought into the room. But after a while, and as T.P.’s older concerns failed to provide him a proper share, he relented and took her into his life and played with her and helped her grow up.
The war days came for T.P. and took him away. Jake then went fully over to Jessie, though for many weeks, and especially when Jessie was in bed, he’d sit up with his ears cocked, listening and listening. We knew he was on the alert for a sound of T.P. He’d moan in his sleep and sometimes wake up with a bark and go upstairs and sniff around T.P.’s old room. Then he’d go back to listening.
Half shepherd and half collie, with the shepherd blood predominant, Jake had always liked to go out and wander at night, especially on moonlit nights. He generally fought on these expeditions, for there were wild and half-wild dogs, living in the woody sections of the parks surrounding us in Kansas City.  Jake was always full of cuts and scars but he took them laughing.
One morning last autumn he came home in a bad fix. His ears were slit and his legs torn. A big slash was over his eye and the front teeth between his fangs were broken off. This was his last nocturnal spree.
After this he’d go out on the porch, cock his ears up, and stand with one leg lifted and curved in a dainty sort of way and listen to the wild dogs baying. His ruff would bristle and he’d bark, but he let his urges go at that and in a little while scratch at the door until one of us let him in. He slept a great deal on the stair landing, moaning and talking more and more in his dreams. We often wondered what kinds of images were built up in this interior life of his sleep.
Jessie’s return from school always snapped Jake into life, though, and he’d romp and play with her as if he were still a pup. He rode East this summer, taking his old place in the car, laughing the miles by. For three years, due to the war, he’d been traveling unhappily on trains and he seemed now to be revivified by this return to old and familiar ways of 
going places.
June and July were gay. T.P. was in far-off Tokyo, gone out of Jake’s life, but Rita was here to see that he got his food, and Jessie, now seven years old, was a pretty good substitute for his lost master. She made daisy chains for his neck and watched him chase the wild bunnies which he never caught, which he never tried very hard to catch, and which certainly he would never have killed if he had done so. Jake was not a hunter. He had no instinct for the kill. Cats were to be chased, all right, but merely to be nibbled on when caught. Other animals were the same.
Dogs, of course, had to be fought, but with Jake this seemed a sort of ritual, a ceremony by which status was maintained, particularly status on his home grounds. No strange dog would be 
suffered in his own house or even too near the door.
But outside of this hangover of suspicion and violent appeal, coming down from the savage centuries of his blood’s past, Jake was gentle. He was polite. He bowed, front feet stretched out, tail wagging in the air. Sitting close by a steak in preparation for the grill, he’d waggle his ears and drool mightily but never touch it. With his red tongue, his smiling mouth, and gentle eyes, with his tawny ruff and his pointed ears, he was immensely pretty and appealing in such moments of polite restraint. But he was always pretty.
Last week Jake returned to sleeping a great deal. When he was awake he was subdued and given to listening again. With ears up and head cocked sideways, he strained as if for something very far away and faint. Was he listening once more for T.P., for his voice or the sound of his flute? Certainly he was trying to hear something. Trying very hard.
Maybe, though, it was not toward anything he’d heard before that he reached. Maybe he was listening for something which would tell him the meaning of the change he could feel was coming to him. Maybe, because Jake knew something strange was near.
I like to believe, however, that a part of him was pointed back to the early times with T.P., back beyond the days of the flute-playing to those of the little boat with the red sail, where he sat with his devoted partner and sailed Menemsha Pond and barked and laughed in the fullness of young vitality and joyous companionship. Those were Jake’s ultimate days, the days of his high success, and surely they were not lost to his old dog’s memory.

On August 2 Jake played with Jessie as usual. In the evening after supper he went out. He had a green ribbon gaily knotted around his neck. Jessie liked to dress him up. Returning from a visit about ten o’clock, I was surprised to find him greeting me as I put the car in the garage. It was a late hour for Jake to be out. He jumped up and I petted him and we went into the house. He had taken to sleeping under a couch in the living room and as soon as we were in he crawled under, thumping his tail on the floor in a sign of satisfaction.
About three in the morning Rita and I were both awakened by a strange, prolonged wail. It was high-pitched and mournful, so utterly mournful that it made a creeping in the flesh. It was wild and without definite locality, like something coming out of far spaces or distant times. We were startled, sharply so, but hearing a panting of breath we said to ourselves, “It’s just old Jake, dreaming again,” and went back to sleep.
When we got up we found Jake dead. His head was lifted a little, his ears were erect, his eyes were open, and his smile was still with him. Jessie’s green ribbon slanted jauntily across his neck. He looked as pretty in death as he had in life. His face was happy. We wondered how this could be in view of the utter sadness of his death cry.
Jake is buried beneath a young pine tree in front of our house.
A young sculptress, who has a dog of her own and knows what it means, is carving his name on a stone. The stone comes off the beach at Menemsha Pond over whose waters and about whose shores Jake tasted most of the sweetness of his life.