Thursday, 29 December 2011


When I was a boy living in my home town of Newcastle NSW my constant companion was a Labrador Retriever named Caesar. In the 1970s all dogs seemed to have been named after kings, like Caesar, Kaiser, Rex, or... King. He arrived as an 8 month old youngster on our doorstep when we lived in Ipswich Queensland. I was about five at the time. Caesar had belonged to another family and they gave him to us I believe because they lived somewhere where they weren't allowed to have pets. My dad was in the Air Force and in 1974 he was transferred to Newcastle, and our dog came with us.

Caesar was walked every day by my father and when I was old enough to go to the park by myself, around the age of 9, I would take Caesar with me, let him off the leash when we arrived at the park, then tie him up again and walk him home where he always hurriedly slurped down a dog dish full of water.

Most of the time he was kept in our large back yard. My parents were scared if they let him roam the streets he might end up in the local pound or run over on the road. He seemed content with this for the first few years until he found out he could escape over the fence at night, wander around the local bushland for hours on end, and return in the early hours of the morning. No-one would have been the wiser had he not reeked to high heaven of the tossed garbage bags he'd nuzzle through and a tide mark along his belly showing he'd been swimming in ponds, no doubt trying and failing to get his paws on local wildlife (more on that practice later).

During the day Caesar would laze around like other dogs, occasionally going for a drink of water around the back of the house, or sitting in the sun while my mum would hang out the clothes on the 1950s style fence-to-fence clothesline.

Then, at about 3:00pm every day he'd instinctively get up and make his way either over the fence or if it was open, through one of the side gates and up the street where he'd sit on the footpath, looking down the hill waiting for the schoolbus that would carry my younger brother, sister and I home. Then, after the bus would depart, he'd stand and stare at the vaguely recognizable children in the distance, waiting for us to get closer. Then we'd call out his name and he'd come running, his ham tongue dripping saliva down those black rubber-like gums to the tar road. We'd greet him, pat his head and he'd accompany us home where we'd get afternoon sandwiches and cordial from Mum, and watch TV.

Occasionally, just to gently tease him, we'd get off the bus at the next stop, creep around the corner, wait until he was watching the other way, and make it to our front fence by hiding behind nature strip trees. He'd be confused that we hadn't jumped off the bus, but then he'd be relieved when we called out his name. The race up the stairs to the front door was always a close one with one happy Labrador right on our tails.

Back in Queensland, Caesar had been a bit of a handful, although one had to see the humour in the predicaments he found himself in. Once, he disappeared for a day until my dad received a phone call, asking if he owned a golden Labrador. My dad said yes, and then jumped in the car to go pick up this juvenile delinquent who had met up with a more experienced black Labrador earlier that day and decided to chase some chickens. Dad found Caesar tied up, feeling very sorry for himself. The man who called said that the other dog was probably the ringleader, and Caesar the gullible sidekick.

Then there was fun with my mother driving the family car. One day she was learning to drive - and this was about 1973 - with the driving school instructor sitting in the passenger seat and as she drove the streets of Eastern Heights, Ipswich, she happened to glance in her rear vision mirror to see a very tired looking dog running behind her. She pulled over to the side of the road and saw, to her alarm, our dog's paws worn down so much they were bleeding. The car wasn't hers and she thought our dog would make a mess on the back seat, so she turned the car around and drove slowly back, allowing Caesar a leisurely hobble back home to where his feet were treated with something soothing like Rawleigh's 'Antiseptic Salve' or Lanolin.

When we moved to Newcastle in 1974 my mum didn't often drive, but one day Caesar saw her driving a few streets away from home. He thought he'd surprise her by jumping through the driver's door window right onto her lap! Trouble was the car wasn't ours, and the woman wasn't my mother. Our dog had a puzzled look on his face as the woman - several months pregnant, by the way - quite understandably screamed in panic.

When I was about 13 I used to walk over to Garden City Kotara, the local shopping centre (now called Westfield Kotara) with a mate of mine, Bill. We didn't have much money in those days, usually enough for a drink, some chips or a few cinnamon donuts, but we liked to go the record shop, called The Green Apple, and also look at bikes at Norman Ross. Getting away from the house without Caesar seeing us and following was a difficult one; even my mother if she went out in the day on errands, would be quiet when she shut and locked the front door as our loyal dog would hear her, start whimpering, then bound over the fence and 'walk her' down to the bus stop. One day he followed my brother and I down to the bus stop and jumped right on the bus with us, much to the amusement of the other kids on the bus. He was ordered off by me, the bus door shut and the bus took off, the dog running for a 100 metres or so before he tired and the bus was out of sight.

One Thursday night, the traditional late shopping night, Bill and I grabbed around $5.00 each and trotted off to Garden City. Two streets away from home, I could hear a dog's feet padding the road, and panting. You guessed it, Caesar had decided we needed company. I was afraid he would get run over so I ordered him home. I'd point homeward, yell: "No! Go home!" He'd look in the direction of the finger, look back to smile and then pant. No matter what I did he wouldn't listen. So he came with us.

In a moment of impetuous foolishness I decided to split from him when we arrived at Garden City. I thought he'd just stay out the front on the grass and we could gather him on our way home a couple of hours later. I told him to stay. He didn't. I told him to go home. He wouldn't. He just followed us into the centre like he was our little brother.

So, there we were, two 13 year old boys and a Labrador walking through Garden City Kotara with everyone staring at us. (It was so embarrassing for me at that fragile age.) We walked into the David Jones store. It was there that we finally lost Caesar when we jumped on the Up escalator. Caesar had never seen moving stairs before and just stood looking up at me as I disappeared.

Bill and I went around the top floor and took our time looking at stereos, watching TV, checking out sports equipment, and generally having a good time. We were away maybe 20 minutes and then we rode the down escalator when we soon heard loud, mournful howling. It was Caesar, at the base of the escalator, still waiting for me and surrounding him were three or four very attractive David Jones girls, trying to console my dog. Before I could escape, Caesar turned his head and when he saw me he bounded towards me and when I stepped off the escalator he jumped up in excitement.

The DJ girls there were very cross with us, abandoning the dog like we did. One said to me: "Is this your dog?" I nodded. "Well, you should be ashamed leaving him like this. He's been very worried!"

Red faced, we left the shopping centre. Personally, I was very annoyed Caesar had 'caused so much trouble,' but my dog didn't care as he had his owner back, he felt safe and his adventure was finally over.


© Matthew Ward, 2011