Hardly anybody remembers old Black Diamond, prince of shaggies, who contributed to this nation and was ill rewarded at the last.
Black Diamond was a notable bison resident at the Bronx Zoo. He was model not only for the buffalo nickel but also for the great bronze bison of Buffalo Bridge entering Georgetown.
He was a male model of 1912. The bridge dates from 1914.
Guess what happened in 1916. They chopped him up for steaks and sold them in New York restaurants. So much for a nation's gratitude.
Instead of flaunting it while he had it, he should have--well, it was all long ago and he was not the first to suffer for art's sake.
I learned all this and more at a Smithsonian lecture given by Dr. Cornelius C. Vermeule III this week on the subject of animal sculptures in the monuments of the capital. We are well fixed for lions and stallions.
In real life, when not peering up into Washington pediments, tympanums and metopes, Vermeule is curator of classical art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and in private life he has a batch of personal Dalmatians.
They are no-count dogs. There was one in our family, Plum Duff (plum duff is a fairly dismal dessert known as spotted dog by those sailors who in the old days often had to eat it on shipboard), who kept coming into false pregnancies, but my uncle thought she was the greatest bitch since the Renaissance. He kept importing champions from around the country to breed her. Finally, well along in years, she whelped 21 pups. The main thing she did was chew the seat out of Navy uniforms, which would have been all right except her owner and most of his friends were career Navy types and this was in wartime Washington. Besides that, old Duff had a surly disposition.
But to get back to Vermeule, he said Dalmatians aren't much good for anything, and as far as he knows they were bred mainly to trot along with Italian dandies riding through the gardens of the Villa d'Este, and while these dogs later were elevated to fire trucks (before this nation started going to pot every fire house had Dalmatians that rode the trucks to fires or trotted along with the horses), they were not much more than ornaments.
Still, as most dog owners know, dogs are like Vietnam: by the time you've invested years and billions in them, it's hard to say it was all a mistake.
Vermeule names his Dalmatians for notable Romans who had connections or origins in Dalmatia. Diocletian, for example.
One of his mutts, Marcus Aurelius, ate everything. Some dogs do eat anything. Our terrier recently ate a small Japanese alarm clock.
Marcus Aurelius did worse. He ate a whole roll of silver half-dollars that Dr. Vermeule had saved.
"And I got every one of them back," he said at a supper given by Richard Howland after the lecture. We all congratulated his pluck.
"But," said David Thompson, chairman of classics at Howard University, "could you still call them uncirculated?"
Thompson is a stickler for provenance.
Meditating on Marcus Aurelius and other dogs who are more trouble than they're worth, I had a sudden insight: Dogs were never domesticated by our cave-man ancestor to help him hunt game. That is what people assume, but I am pretty sure it is not true.
No. The first dogs were pets of our savage forebears who were hard put to dream up some unsentimental reason for wasting a lot of time and food on the dogs, and decided to call them hunting dogs. For it must have been true then, as now, that any dog will ramble along with you in the woods and dash madly for a duck, fallen branch, waterfall, moon, etc.
Only this month I noticed in the Smithsonian magazine an authoritative sentence, the truth of which I have long suspected:
"Studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers indicate that dogs are often more of a burden than an asset in hunting. Australian aboriginals often wind up carrying their exhausted pooches back to camp, where they serve the primary purpose of keeping their masters warm at night."
Most men have always known this, but it has been hushed up. My friend Fargason wasted a whole day of duck hunting returning ducks that his retriever retrieved illegitimately, by visiting blinds around the lake. It speaks well for the honor of hunters that when Fargason asked around the lake how many ducks were missing, all the guys answered honestly and he came out even. Still, his retriever was of marginal usefulness, duckwise.
And as for watchdogs, you surely remember the beautiful photograph of the Brooklyn watchdog, a boxer, shown peering into the cash register recently robbed at the mom-pop store he was supposed to be guarding. He was having a nap at the time.
My old Luke had such a sensitive nose (he was a hound, of course) and such loyalty and sense of duty that one molecule of scent was enough to set him off. As a result, he often raced furiously to the wrong end of the house when a stranger approached. Old Bass, another hound of ours, trotted out the front door when intruders entered the house and left the door open. As my wife faced them, she could see old Bass bouncing happily up the sidewalk, sniffing as she went.
Vermeule and the Australian aboriginals are merely the latest in the long chronicle of humans who know perfectly well that dogs aren't worth shooting and, as the Australians are embarrassed to report, you often have to carry them around, particularly on a long walk or when they get old.
The true reason for the original domestication of the dog is simply that people have always loved dogs. We differ little (surprisingly little, it must often occur to you) from cave men.
Much work is afoot on DNA, the so-called "building block of life" that is supposed to dictate how the human develops from a tiny nucleus in a mother. It will doubtless be learned, when science gets round to it, what is already clear to me: Man is the dog-hugging animal, programmed from the beginning of life.
The sooner we face this plain fact, the sooner we can drop these pretenses that dogs are good in the field, good against burglars, good at deathbeds and so on, and the sooner we can relax into the unsentimental truth, that human life cannot, in the nature of it, be lived humanly without a dog.
Once we see plainly that man is part dog--the better part of man, at that--the sooner we will relax when Marcus Aurelius eats the roll of silver and Max eats the alarm clock. These are learning experiences. These are bold assaults on the unknown. Dogs try anything. Men are rarely so brave, so sanguine or so trusting. Very likely man first conducted scientific experiments into the mystery of things from observing Marc or Max or Pompey or Fido poking about on his daily rounds. A small meteorite here, an alarm clock there. And music, holiest of all the arts, almost certainly began the day the first man pried a reed whistle out of Luke's jaws.