Old Blue was a dog. This is a dog story, but it may say more about Sam and his father than it does about this extraordinary animal. You be the judge of that.
This is not my story. I heard it on the radio on Sunday, September 5, 1988, on a station out of Louisville, Kentucky. I’m not stealing the story. I just want to tell it again. The man who told it has something to do with an annual festival of story- tellers in Louisville. He said it’s been going on for thirteen years now. The first year there were nine story tellers and six listeners. Last year there was a whole bunch of story-tellers and over 10,000 listeners. There is nothing like a good story well told. I liked his “Old Blue” story. I hope you do too.
Old Blue was a coon dog. I’ve never given coon hunting much thought myself, but would you believe the very next day on “Morning Edition,” I learned about the coon dog cemetery in Tennessee. The Tennessee Valley Coon Hunting Association maintains a cemetery where members can lay their hunting companions to rest. No intruders allowed. A few years back, they dug up a house pet that got buried there under false pretences. “Old Yeller,” “Old Blue,” “Duke,” “Queen” and King” are some of the names honored there, many of them very colorful. Anyway hearing how so many coon dogs enjoy such respect, I want to preserve the story of “Old Blue.”
Near as I can, I’ll tell it as I heard it, in the first person.
I grew up in Western Kentucky. Went through all the grades there in the company of a friend and classmate, Sam. Old Blue was Sam’s Pa’s dog. Old Blue was the pride and joy of Sam’s Pa. Fact is Sam’s Pa thought more of that dog than he did of Sam. That dog had a voice like a trumpet. Even in a pack of hounds, you could always recognize his rich yowls, and knew for sure whether he wax just war, or hot on the trail. And there was nothing in the world like the sounds he made when a coon got treed. Smart too. Wasn’t nobody around that didn’t credit Old Blue with being the smartest damn dog in the county
Anyway, Sam and I were very close. We both went to the University of Kentucky together. Only ones in our class that went to college. We were taking different courses. I was in liberal arts. He was in agriculture and animal husbandry. We moved in different crowds. Sam got off on the wrong foot. He began drinking and gambling. He got deeply in debt. I couldn’t help him, and was saddened to see the direction his life was taking. He did’t talk to me much about it, because he knew I disapproved.
In his distress over money, he spent hours thinking up plans for how to get more. He wrote his father saying that the university was starting a very special experimental program to teach animals to read. They need intelligent animals for the experiment. Seeing as to how Old Blue was the smartest dog around, he seemed an ideal candidate for the program. “Just sent the dog and $200,” he wrote “and I’ll enroll him in the program.”
Well, Sam’s father didn’t like the idea at first. He hated to part with his dog even for science. Then the more he thought about it, the more reasonable it seemed. Old Blue deserved the opportunity, and it wouldn’t hurt his own reputation none to have a dog that could read. So he put Old Blue on the bus and sent along $200 for enrollment. Sam was delighted and hoped to win back his losses, but in no time at all he was further in debt. Stymied again, he wrote another letter to his dad.
“Thanks for sending Old Blue. You’d be right proud of how well he is doing. The faculty is very impressed. They now want to teach him to write. They say writing goes hand in hand with reading, and it would be a shame not to let Old Blue learn to write. Please send $200 for enrollment.
The money came.
And the money went. Sam was desperate, but he tried again.
“Thanks for sending the money,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the progress he is making. He’s the talk of the department. They are so excited, they now get me to enroll him in the experimental course for talking animals. It would be a shame to have a dog that can read and write, but not talk. Please send $200.”
Sam’s family was not rich. This dog was becoming a drain on their resources, but family pride in their blue ribbon coon dog won out, and $200 came in the return mail. Sam’s Pa would have been shocked to know it followed after what had come before. The final ignominy was, Sam lost the dog where he had lost the money. There would have to be a reckoning and soon. Christmas vacation was just around the corner, and we were both going home.
Sam’s Pa was so excited about getting to see Old Blue again, he could hardly contain himself. Naturally enough He wanted to show off Old Blue’s new learning, that he had invested so much in. He called all his friends and neighbors in for the homecoming. He himself was eager to watch his dog read, write and talk. “Never heard the like,” he said to himself.
Well, friend were all gathered and waiting for Sam and Olfd Blue when Sam pulled up in his pickup. “Git yerself in here,” his Father called, “and bring Old Blue.” Sam just stood at the door, appalled at the assembly of admirers, eager to see Old Blue perform. Sam stayed at the door saying he had to talk to his Pa. The old man kept calling out for him to come on in. Finally, he yielded to the lad’s insistence and joined him in the pickup.
“Pa,” the boy began, “I am really sorry what I have to tell you. I feel so bad about it, and I know you’re going to be hurt. I’ve been looking forward so much to coming home! Just this morning I was in the bathroom having with my straight razor and I said to Old Blue, “Old Blue,I can hardly wait to get home and seem my folks again. It’s been so long we’ve been away, “ Old Blue was sitting there reading the paper. He said, “Me too.” Then after a moment he added, “I especially miss your Pa. He’s been so good to me.” Then he hesitated a moment before he went on to say: “Also I’m wondering if he is still carrying on with that young school teacher.”
“Pa, I don’t know what got into me, but I lit out after that dog and slit his throat then and there. I killed him before I knew it, I was so upset. And now I don’t hardly know what to say.”
There was along pause. The old man swallowed a couple of times, put his arm around Sam and said, “You done the right thing, Son, you done the right thing.”