It’s been nearly thirty years since I lost Tommy. Despite that, I still have dreams about him. I dream that he hasn’t come home. I fret about him, but then he turns up; and strangely, it’s to the home where I now live, and Tommy never lived here. I get this wonderful relief, and wonder why I was so worried. Tommy always turns up. Then I wake up, and my old mate is long gone again. Despite his spectral presence, I haven’t told his story. Here it is.
I used to run a taxi service from my little country town. I’d pick up regular and irregular passengers from various spots in the Adelaide Hills, and I was always keen to see who I would meet, and what adventures might unfold. It was when I was picking up a regular, a lady who I used to ferry from her little dot on the map, to another little dot on the map, where she would do a fortnightly clean of her elderly parent’s house, when I first laid eyes on Tommy.
“Wow. What a great looking dog.”
“He’s been hanging around here for a couple of days now,” Margie told me. “Perhaps he got out of someone’s car, and they’ll come back for him.”
He certainly was a special example of dogdom. Possibly a cross between a labrador and a kelpie, he was black and trim, with feet that barely touched the ground; a pair of gravity-defying ears providing the magic force which kept him suspended between earth and sky.
“Give me a call if he’s still here in a day or two.”
And that’s how Tommy, (somehow I knew straight away that was his name) after a little coaxing, jumped into the back of my cab, and into my life.
As well as having a wonderful inquisitive and friendly nature, it soon became apparent that Tommy was a dog of boundless energy (although bounding is what he did plenty of). He would race for a thrown tennis ball at lightning speed, often catching the ball on the first bounce, at the top of the bounce, with a snap of his jaws, and returning it soggily to his trained servant.
If there was no ball available, a stick did the job. Tommy also enjoyed a challenge. I could throw a ball into the longest grass, with Tommy unsighted, and he would criss-cross the terrain at lightning speed with his nose radar, and return panting for more in no time. (We fortunately had a large yard).
As much as I liked to walk with Tommy, what he really loved was the evenings I would trundle along the nearby dirt road up a steep hill in my battered old four wheel drive Toyota ute, with him running alongside. There were a couple of dams along this track, and a decent throw with a stick or ball saw Tommy leap into the water and power to his target with the same enthusiasm as his land based fetches.
This was a dog with a zest for life. No workmen could tarry on the footpath without Tommy inserting his friendly vibe. These were the days when a dog in a little country town had some freedom, so Tommy soon got to know most of the neighbours. He particularly befriended a couple who lived on the other side of the road to us, who had a couple of young girls.
When I was out with my taxi, Tommy stayed home or visited this couple. It was also the place he escaped to when I upset him, as I did one day. It hurts to recall this day, but firstly a neighbour told me that Tommy had been chasing her chooks. Then Tommy killed one of our chooks. Obviously this had to be nipped in the bud.
I read somewhere that you could hang the dead chook on their collar for a few days to cure them. I also read that if you gave the offending dog a good belting with the dead chook it would cure him. Believe me when I say that it hurt me as much as it hurt Tommy, but that’s what I forced myself to do. He ran off to sulk with the neighbours, and an hour or two later came home as pally as ever. From that day on, he never even saw a chook.
Tommy also liked to go for a ride in a car. It didn’t really matter whose car it was. If a visiting friend paused when opening their car door as they were about to leave, Tommy would leap in; and if they were true friends they would take him for a little drive before they departed.
One day Tommy disappeared. We fretted for days, thinking we had seen the last of him, when he reappeared with a large gaping wound in his haunch, possibly indicating that he had been caught up in a fence. The vet attended to him, and we had to subject him to that great ignobility of wearing a bucket around his neck to stop him licking the wound. A dog’s life indeed.
My parents owned a small farm nearby, although they did not live there, and we used to go there to throw hay out to their cattle, much to Tommy’s delight. Here too was a variety of things which could be flung, and Tommy would clear fences with a single bound chasing sticks, with not the slightest awareness of the barbed wire wounding him as he passed. It is salutary that a dog doesn’t feel pain in such a situation.
Children were added over the years to the family which Tommy began, and one day as we were returning from the farm, I got a bright idea. We were crossing the unused railway line which ran past the farm and continued around the bend, eventually running behind the house where we lived.
“Why don’t you and Tommy walk home along the railway line Douglas? I’ll meet you at the other end.”
Off they went. But halfway back home, I remembered that there was a portion of the line which crossed a creek, a considerable distance below; and that this crossing had sleepers with gaps between them. We raced to where the line met the road, and I walked quickly to the crossing from the other end. There was no sign of Tommy or Douglas. I ran back to the car and drove towards the farm, when we spotted Douglas at a house beside the line they had found their way to. A kindly couple were about to run Douglas and Tommy home and Tommy was ensconced on the back seat ready to go. He was so pissed off when he had to get out and ride back with us.
One day I realised that something very strange was happening to my mate. His appearance was changing, so slowly that it was unseen, until the day it suddenly hit home. One half of his head was slowly wasting away. One side had all the muscle and flesh as normal, while the other was down to the bone. The vet said that he had probably damaged a nerve when fighting with another dog, and that the damage was probably permanent.
This was very sad. There was no change in his personality, but he was a very strange looking dog indeed. Then imperceptively, as the problem had developed, one day I realised that it was going away, and gradually, his head was back to normal.
These were different times, and I can quite understand the controls on free roaming dogs which apply these days; but it was not unusual in those days for me to return from an early trip to the airport, and while passing through the nearby town, spot Tommy and a collection of other dogs answering the ‘call of the wild’ and vying for its affection.
I’d give him a call, he’d jump in the car and be chauffeured home.
The greatest trauma of all was still to unfold however. One day I heard a shot, followed by a series of yelps. I looked out the rear window in the direction of the sounds. From the house on the other side of the railway line in the slope below the house, I saw Tommy making his way towards home in an erratic course. When he arrived I could see that one of his eyes was a bloodied pulp.
I put him in the car, and raced to the nearest vet, expecting him to drop dead at any moment, but encouraged that he didn’t. The vet said that it appeared the bullet had smashed the eye then glanced off without entering the head. It was a traumatic time for all, but fortunately the neighbour moved on, and despite Tommy misjudging the occasional ball and having it bounce off his nose sometimes, he was soon back to his old self, though disfigured somewhat.
Over the years, despite changes in lifestyle, Tommy was the reliable and constant companion. He grew older, as dogs do. When circumstances led to me renting out the house, and taking off for the red centre, of course he had to come with me. But the outback, beautiful as it might be, is a harsh place, and a friendly loving pooch like Tommy suddenly finds that every other dog wants to kill you.
It was at William Creek, a corrugated iron pub, a phone box, (is it still there?) a road used for a landing strip, and a population of six where the first outback dogs circled the campfire menacingly, teeth flashing, and their deep-throated growls signalling their resentment to intruders. Smaller and older than these mulga-muscled beasts, I was very careful to see that Tommy was kept at a safe distance from them.
Out from Marree we explored the amazing Mound Springs, where water bubbles up from under the ground from the Great Artesian Basin. Tommy had no hesitation in leaping in for a warm swim in this magic place.
Eventually we rolled into the bright colours of Alice Springs, and after a couple of weeks, out to visit a nephew of mine where he worked, at Mount Allan, a remote Aboriginal community some 300 kilometres out of town at the edge of the Tanami Desert. I was to spend the next two years there, as the arts organiser.
The nearby (only 70 kilometres) Aboriginal township of Yuendumu holds an annual sports week-end every year, and a week after I arrived at Mount Allan, this event was due. I took Tommy along, and we slept in the back of my van at nights. Incredibly, I met up with some Aboriginal friends I had made some years earlier, when I had picked them up in the Hills in my taxi. I never thought I would ever visit their home of Yuendumu, let alone become a near neighbour.
The sports week-end was a mixture of traditional skills, (firelighting, spear throwing) and athletics, along with softball for the women, basketball, netball, and the big one; Aussie Rules Football. There was also a ‘Battle of the Sounds’ whereupon bush bands from various settlements would play their mixture of electronic country and rock, hoping to win this coveted award.
Visiting communities would come from hundreds of kilometres away to compete, and the population of Yuendumu would swell from one thousand residents, to ten thousand; including white spectators, for a few days.
The visiting communities would each camp on the edge of town nearest to their home country. On the second day, I was walking among this huge gathering, and I realised that Tommy was no longer with me. There were hundreds of dogs to be seen, and I was at a total loss as to where to even begin looking for him.
After a half-hour or more (I had even asked a couple of cops if they had seen my dog, much to their amusement) I heard an outbreak of frenzied barking, and I spotted Tommy running for his life with a pack of dogs after him. Tommy saw the open door of a bus, and leapt in, and fortunately his pursuers didn’t follow. Unfortunately, the call of the wild, or a bitch on heat, was a life threatening scenario for this new dog in town.
Poor Tommy. We slept in my van, and I cuddled the poor old fellow as he trembled throughout that long night. I was careful to ensure that Tommy was never in such danger again.
On the way back to Mount Allan a couple of days later, I stopped to boil the billy. Tommy found a little clearing, where a couple of white people were sitting near their little fire.
“Shoo. Go away!” The woman said to Tommy. I approached, and told them it was Tommy, and he was nothing to worry about.
“We thought he was a wild dog.”
I looked at my old mate. Chewed up, one-eyed, and greying, he was many years away from the spritely fellow I had picked up from the road so many years ago. His friendly nature was still there, but this couple couldn’t see it.
Over the next couple of months, Tommy grew weaker. It was all he could do to follow me around. On a trip to Alice Springs, I took him to the vet. The vet convinced me that he was suffering, and that the kindest thing to do was to put him down. I buried Tommy in the front yard of a nephew in Alice Springs.
Driving back to Mount Allan a couple of days later, there was a graded track creating a diversion from the main dirt road, under repair. As I drove along the diversion, a young black dingo darted out of the scrub. It ran in front of my van, leading the way for three or four kilometres at least. I harboured thoughts of him flopping down with exhaustion, and picking him up and taking him home with me, but eventually he deviated from the track.
I came to the conclusion that it was just Tommy, saying good-bye.