By Leisa Jennings
For the Observer
When my son came to me at age 17 and said he wanted his own dog, I hesitated. Was he responsible enough? Would he be committed? But it made sense. As soon as Solomon was able to walk or talk, dogs were his favorite subject. He loved to draw them, pet them, accumulate stuffed ones, and ask every stranger if he could “please pet your dog.” So, I said okay. He said, “Oh, by the way, I want a pit bull.” I said, “Whhhoooooaaa.”
I had never met a pit bull, but it was ingrained into my brain that they were cold-blooded killers. Weren’t they? I wasn’t sold on the idea, but Solomon was moving to his own place soon, and heck, I was a dog lover myself. I surrendered to my son’s pretty blue eyes, and he became the proud owner of Homer, the red-nose pit bull puppy. I remained slightly reserved and hesitant around Homer for years. I would think — peering into his face that he could just “Snap and eat me!” After a few initial arguments about the developing spots staining my new Berber carpet, Solomon began to train and teach Homer extensively. In the next six years Homer became the most loving, gentle, sweet soul of a pit bull that ever lived.
Cost of prejudice
Solomon was finding it increasingly difficult to find an apartment that would allow Homer. In Kirkland and other surrounding Seattle areas, pit bulls were banned from even existing. Nearly all apartments had a clause in their rental agreement that no “aggressive breeds” were allowed. This didn’t include my golden retriever, who was capable of biting the hand off a child toddling onto his tail by accident. I learned that it’s actually illegal to even drive through Denver, Colorado with a pit bull. The police can stop you at any time and confiscate this breed. A pit bull owner could then find their pet quickly euthanized at a kill shelter before being able to locate the dog. Solomon told me once, “Mom, I would rather live on the street than ever give up my dog.” He would have, too. He believed as I do that our dogs are not disposable. If you watch their expressive brown eyes, they will tell you exactly what they want. In Homer’s case, sometimes it was as simple as requesting Dasani bottled water rather than hose water.
We moved to Portland six years later and Solomon and Homer moved with us, along with my two other big dogs, a retriever and a lab. Looking for a house to rent with three big dogs did not prove an easy task, but we found a lovely craftsman on Hawthorne with surprisingly pit bull-friendly landlords. I grew to love Homer greatly during this time and always called him Grandma’s angel. We bonded in the mornings when Solomon went to work and Homer would sprint as if winged onto my bed and nose his way under my covers. Once I found out how utterly and completely trustworthy he was, I strolled Homer down busy Hawthorne many times.
One day, during my last few months with Solomon in Portland, we hiked Multnomah Falls — just Sol, Homer and I. It was a misty day. I packed veggie sub sandwiches and we set off to this magical site. The beauty was stunning and unlike anything I had ever seen. Homer was on his leash and proudly displaying his usual best behavior. As we approached the water, the mist from the towering falls hit our faces and we looked at each other in awe. Energetically, we began the ascent, winding and switchbacking. We passed only a few people because it was November. Some were friendly. Others backed away from Homer, the vicious red nose. Solomon didn’t care and was always friendly back, assuring people that his dog was not going to have their children for a lunch snack.
We took silly pictures of each other the whole way, stopping occasionally to share a few bites of sandwich at particularly beautiful sites. The mist sprinkled us like magic dust. It was a spiritual day. When we arrived at the top, Solomon kept a close eye on me when I got too close to the edge, always protective. He stood at the top and raised his hands toward the sky, exhilarated. I will never forget it. I took his picture as he looked over the falls. The beautiful memories of that day have been marred for the last seven years by the loss of Solomon, a feeling so painful I can hardly think about it.
When Homer was seven, my beloved son, Solomon, age 23, was killed as a passenger in a tragic car accident. I became a grandma for real as I was bequeathed this beautiful grandson pit bull as a precious gift from my son. Since then, I have witnessed first hand breed banning, discrimination and hate. I hope that in my lifetime I can educate as many people as I can about the incredible joy of loving a pit bull, as well as the responsibility we have to train, teach and protect them. I am hoping my research and experiences will raise awareness and soften hearts. I never got to tell Solomon what an amazing job he did raising this dog. Solomon, you did an awesome job. This is for you. I am so blessed to have this loving dog, Homer.
Lives in the aftermath
So, where does one go in the event of such a tragedy? The day after we lost Solomon we moved out of the house in Portland and drove stunned to my hometown, Raymond. My best friend, Carolyn, took us in and tended to our tear-streaked wounds, even sending vegan muffins up to our room. We then lived in our RV in my mom’s yard on the South Fork of the Willapa “until further notice,” as this devastating loss nearly took me back to a cellular structure. My daughter had come home from Oakland to say goodbye to her brother. She was in between her two last years of school in California, earning her master’s degree in creative writing/poetry. We couldn’t send her off on such a tragic note, so my husband and I decided to drive her from Washington state to California in our RV. We bought a hitch to tow the car behind the RV and Brian was our faithful though saddened driver. I spent most of my time for the next three weeks in the back bedroom of the RV curled up next to Homer’s head as I held my son’s ashes. Homer was stoic and assumed shotgun, a duty I shared as I held him in my lap in the passenger seat while Brian drove. I believe we felt a mutual comfort from our great loss. I would be willing to bet that Homer is part human (the good part of humans).
I learned so much with our new grandson, Homer. Some of the things I learned made me very sad. Oh, you mean some RV sites don’t allow pit bulls? You mean none of them do in California? That was a disturbing bit of realization. After all, Jon Stewart adores his rescued pit bulls and let his super cute duo of pitties take over “The Daily Show” one day. After a full day of driving, mostly in silence, I started calling potential RV parks. With so many rejections on Homer’s account, I started to think we might have to set up camp along the side of the road. Finally, somewhere in the Redwoods, we pulled in with our shades drawn hiding Homer, our horrible secret. We took Homer out only to pee that night and crept out the next morning, concerned at having witnessed a prejudice that I had never experienced. As evening approached, we arrived in sunny Cal and looked for a place to call home for three weeks where my daughter could drive to college each day. Again, after many refusals to accept us with this monster, I tearfully pleaded with an RV campground manager and asked if they could just meet Homer before refusing us? I brought him into the office, legs shaking, as they sized him up. They allowed us to make their parking lot our home for the next three difficult weeks.
On the return trip, we were turned away from a KOA when I flipped a light on in the RV from a distance and the manager saw Homer. Apparently, insurance requirements are responsible for that bit of prejudice and have most KOAs over a barrel in that regard. A Wal-Mart parking lot saved us that night. It wasn’t much different from the pavement we had lived on for the previous three weeks at the RV place — just without hookups.
Seven years of healing
In some ways, I think Solomon left Homer to me as a gift to help me survive the loss. Homer watched over me for the next seven years as we hiked and explored together. He was welcome in Astoria stores and restaurants just as he had been in Portland. The Fort George in Astoria gave him love and strips of bacon, and he made lifelong friends at Gimry’s Shoes and the Vintage Hardware. We’d stop into the Buoy after strolling the Astoria boardwalk that follows along the Graveyard of the Pacific, the Lower Columbia River. With its dangerous sandbars and violent storms and currents, the area around the mouth of the Columbia historically swallowed or busted up whole ships. The Maritime Museum along the paved walk explains and displays the history and importance of the discovery of the mouth of the Columbia as it forcefully flows into the Pacific Ocean. Homer was also a regular at Astoria’s crowded Sunday Market, where wide-eyed children constantly flocked to him and asked to pet him. We’d grab a coffee at the 14th Street Coffee, the only place in Astoria that I know I will get an expertly made cappuccino with foam topping artistically shaped into a heart. I love Astoria’s dog-friendly stance.
In Raymond, Homer’s favorite place was the Dennis Company, as they spoiled him shamelessly with milk bones, as did the Daily Perk and Bank of the Pacific. He had a Pendleton wool jacket for cold days, a collegiate sweater, and a yellow rain jacket for rainy walks to downtown South Bend. I’m sure most people in town know me as “that lady with the red-nose pit bull that walks the South Bend to Raymond trail every day.”
Homer and I frequently walked the mixed green salad of the Lewis and Clark National Park in Warrenton. Parking is free at Netul Landing, which is also an easy access point for kayaks. My husband and I kayaked from there on a rainy yet warm day and were fortunate enough to see a massive bald eagle nest in the V of a tree with two adults feeding babies from a slippery carcass. We saw woodpeckers rhythmically chopping in some rotted trees. If you walk the mile from Netul Landing to Fort Clatsop site you will see replicas of the humble shelters where the 33 members of Lewis and Clark’s Expedition had lived as they wintered amongst the Clatsop people, who had lived here for thousands of years. Step inside the wooden forts and visualize what it must have felt like for them to walk through enormous Western red cedars and Sitka spruce trees. I love how some of the trees and bushes have been tagged for identification. During the summer, the park puts on living history programs, ranger-led hikes, and reenactments. From the Visitor’s Center, a mossed path leads to an entrance for the 13-mile Fort to Sea Trail. I began this trail with Homer, but I have to admit being submerged in green foliage left me mesmerized. Suddenly lacking a clear direction, we had to backtrack to Netul Landing. When I spend a day surrounded by mossy trees and walking a spongy forest floor, my mind wanders and gets lost in such beauty. Bits of time slip away. It’s hard to imagine ever hiking without my trusted pit bull.
Homer passed away in my arms over Christmas going on age 14. Shout out to Dr. Gina Lewis at Vetter’s Veterinary in South Bend, as she came in to work on a busy Christmas Sunday to help me return Homer to Solomon. I lay on the floor with him and whispered for him to go and be with my son. He had done his job well. He was solace at its very best and will never be replaced or forgotten. We buried Homer in his Christmas scarf and wrapped up warmly in Solomon’s big fuzzy winter coat. After the years with such a complete and total gift, I will honor Homer by raising another pit bull. Her name is Frankie. I will teach her to be kind and gentle. I will do this for Solomon.