Fishing With My Furry Best Friend

My parents purchased their dream house when I was 11 years old. It was anything but that for me. It was located on Bodkin Creek, a tributary that lead to Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. The backyard was surrounded by a hundred-plus acres of woodlands, inhabited by the usual critters.

A sea of adventure lay before me. But how much fun could one kid have swimming every day in the summer, or ice skating in the winter, or exploring the woods -- alone?

The nearest kids lived 15 miles away. As hard as Dad and Mom tried to see that I had playmates, they soon realized their happy home was becoming my prison. The only time I saw any kids was at school. But unbeknown to me, my parents were in search of a playmate.

One day when I got off the school bus, readying for the mile walk home, they were waiting for me in their Chevy station wagon. As I entered the car, Dad said, ''We're going for a ride.'' Before I could ask where, Mom said, ''It's a surprise.''

Soon we were cruising on the country road that spanned the county. I watched with enjoyment as farms whisked by, the tall stalks of corn waving in the stiff breeze created by Dad's powerful ship.

''There's Farmer Norman, Dad. Blow the horn!''

I'd met Farmer Norman, a widower, and now my friend, the first weekend in our new house, when I went exploring. Since then, every Saturday I would ride my bike to visit. Throughout our relationship, he taught me more about American history and nature than any school teacher. And he explained how animals, regardless of size, possessed their own distinct personality.

Suddenly, the tires crunched along a gravel road. Their sweet sound awakened me from my reverie. I instinctively knew we had ventured 50 miles to visit Great Uncle John and Aunt Mary. Uncle John was Dad's uncle and a sexton. Aunt Mary, a robust woman, wore such colorful clothes, she was nicknamed Rainbow. And always after hugging, she led me to her homemade chocolate-almond cake.

But before my treat, I was called to the backyard by Dad. Outside, by the chicken coop, I saw a foot-tall female terrier contemplating the feeding fowl. Her coat was black with streaks of gold and red. ''Erik, come!'' shouted Uncle John. Immediately the dog was by his side.

''Larry,'' Uncle John said as he patted her, ''this animal belonged to a friend of mine. His job required him to move, and he couldn't take the dog. You want her?''

I dropped to my knees and petted Erik, who licked my face. ''You bet I do!'' I cried.

When we arrived home, I made Erik a bed from an old quilt and a small wicker basket, which I placed alongside my bed. But she had other ideas; she leaped onto the mattress and claimed title to the foot of the bed. We'd sleep like that for the next decade.

Erik soon proved to be my best friend. Every day, she walked to the bus stop with me and would be waiting there when I returned. Together we romped in the woods, chasing rabbits and squirrels, who soon realized we posed no threat. In time they ignored our noisy presence.

Sometimes we swam, and Erik always managed to win our races to the opposite shore. In wintertime, the creek became a block of ice, and out came my skates.

I used to try to emulate David Jenkins, United States gold medalist in the 1960 Winter Olympics, by spinning and twisting my short stout body on the ice and in the air. Time and again, my efforts were rewarded with a bruised bottom.

One day, Erik grew impatient with my exertions. She padded out to the ice from her perch on the pier -- something she rarely did -- and, without making a sound, leaped into the air, did a complete twist, and landed perfectly on all fours. She then smirked and repeated her acrobatic performance.

She barked encouragement, and I went for it. Skating as fast as I could, I leaped into the air, arms folded across my chest, and twisted crashing on my butt. Erik immediately came to my aid, licked my face, and soothed my bruised ego.

Two years after we became the Calvin and Hobbes of the 1960s, we went to visit Uncle Pete's family in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in early summer. My older cousin Anthony took us trout fishing on the upper Potomac. The first two days we waded out into the cool waters of a bubbling stream and cast our lines. We caught nothing. Erik basked in the sunshine on the honeysuckle-covered bank. Occasionally she'd stretch her short legs, while watching a hummingbird glide from one succulent red flower to another, and s he would yelp. And I spied her snatching honey bees in midair.

On the third day of fishing, I became bored. As I waded back to shore, I said to Erik, ''There's no fish in this stream!'' She sat up and looked at me. Then she walked to the edge of the bank and stared into the rippling waters. Suddenly, Erik leaped into the air and plunged in. Taken aback, I watched her shake her head wildly back and forth until she emerged from her dunking with the biggest trout I have ever seen. Scurrying out of the water, she placed her prize on the bank.

By now, Anthony was standing next to me, open-mouthed, looking as surprised as the flopping trout on the bank. ''That dog's a better fisherman than we are,'' he said.

Understanding my thoughts the way only a dog can, Erik knew to keep fishing. We watched her vault into the water, snapping her jaws as her snout went slicing into the foam. Her head splashed frenziedly from side to side. But each time, she surfaced with a bigger catch than the last.

Erik became the talk of our family. The next eight summers we received invitations to visit relatives from Maine to California. I got to experience America, and our relatives were charmed by the world's greatest fishing dog.

But I never did learn why she was called Erik.

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