My first dog was named for the narrator of Moby-Dick, a wandering soul who boards Captain Ahab’s ship and chronicles his deadly obsession with the white whale. I’ve never read Moby-Dick, and, as near as I can tell, neither has anyone else. But it’s the only book I know of, apart from scripture, that has the name Ishmael in it. In my eyes, that alone is enough to make it cool – although not enough to get me to read it.
My Ishmael wasn’t any kind of a sailor. He hated water and the cleanliness that came with it. He was something of a wanderer, though, more like his Biblical namesake than the dude on the boat. In Genesis, Ishmael, firstborn son of Abraham, was cast off into the desert, unwanted and alone, much like the sad stray dog that my mother took in a couple of years before I was born. Mom was fond of taking in stray dogs and stray people over the years, but none of them captured my imagination like Ishmael – or Ish for short.
I was devoted to that unkempt, scrawny black lab mutt. I didn’t realize until many years after he died that Ish didn’t really like us very much.
Oh, I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, but there was no other way to explain his desire to bolt whenever he saw an open door. He was pleasant enough when the doors were closed, especially if there was food involved, but he never really took to the simple life. When freedom presented itself, Ish made a run for it.
Then came the call to arms.
“Ish is out!” someone would scream, and then the entire house would mobilize for the rescue mission. Mom would drag us into the station wagon, and we would patrol the streets, following the trail of destruction in Ish’s wake as he ran furiously to escape the little kids who loved him too much to let him go. Eventually, he would be cornered or exhausted, and we’d haul him back into the car and back home, where he moped and shlumped his way through the indignity of domesticity. Sometimes, though, we would fail to catch him, and Ish would be seemingly gone forever.
It was in those moments, then, when Ish showed his true colors.
An hour or two after his disappearance, Ish would return of his own free will, bearing a peace offering – a dead bird, a dead rabbit, or perhaps even a dead cat, which did not endear Ish to any of our feline-loving neighbors. Mom was aghast, but I was glad to know that, underneath it all, Ish really did like us. Either that, or he was hungry after a few hours alone and liked to be fed. Either way was fine with me.
Comedian George Carlin once noted that, because of the relatively short life span of domestic pets compared to their owners, every dog or cat is a built-in childhood tragedy waiting to happen. Ish lived a long and healthy life, I suppose, but he died before I was a teenager. I was embarrassed by how much I cried when I found out, and I never thought I could love again. That changed drastically when I discovered girls a few years later, most of whom liked me even less than Ish did, but you never forget your connection to the first beast to barge into your life. And his veterinary-induced departure left a hole in my life that has mostly healed by now, but it still stings if I fiddle with it.
After all, what became of Captain Ahab after the white whale was dead? (Seriously, what became of him? I haven’t read the book. I don’t know.)