It was eight years ago when I first met Oscar, an adorable, albeit a tad headstrong 5-month-old golden retriever service dog. I was walking back from the tennis courts next to my apartment building when I saw him with his owner, Colleen Hughes, who’s my neighbor.
Colleen was in a wheelchair and Oscar was dutifully by her side. After she motioned, he sprinted in my direction. But he dashed right by me and flew headlong into my tennis bag. Seemingly in search of a particular ball, he scattered dozens of tennis balls onto the sidewalk.
Days later, Colleen asked if I would get Oscar some exercise. I took him to an empty tennis court and let him off his leash. He began feverishly ferreting tennis balls stuck between the fence and the mesh windbreak. That was kind of cute. Having to chase him for 15 minutes to put his leash back on, was not.
On the walk home, I rehearsed how I would break the news to Colleen that I wasn’t going to be walking Oscar anymore. But when she enthusiastically greeted me, “So, do you want to walk him every day?” I froze. “Uh, why don’t we just play it by ear,” I said feebly.
When Colleen asked again, this time I had a chat with Oscar on the way to the tennis courts. I suggested that if things didn’t improve pronto this would be our last walk. I realize that sounds weird, man talks to dog, but, amazingly, Oscar got the message. He was suddenly so obedient that I could let him off the leash at will. This development, however, would almost land the two of us on the canine version of “America’s Most Wanted.”
Our first ticket (actually my first ticket) was for Oscar being off the leash. I tried to joke with the animal control officer that technically Oscar was on his leash, I just wasn’t attached to the end of it. She didn’t find that particularly amusing. I wrote about the encounter in a column entitled, “Rebel with four paws.”
In court, I was in shock when the judge asked sternly, “Mr. Neworth, is your attorney present?” Lawyer? It was a dog leash ticket. This was during the O.J. trial, so I almost said, “Johnny Cochran called to say that he was stuck in traffic, your honor.” Fortunately, at the last moment I recalled the expression, “contempt of court.”
I had brought Oscar’s service dog paperwork and a photo of him wearing his vest. A true ham, Oscar had struck a “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille” pose which caused the bailiff to suggest that I must have taken the photo off the Internet. The courtroom broke out in laughter whereupon the exasperated judge dismissed the case. I wrote about this episode with “Oscar’s big day in court.”
But in life there’s redemption. Saturday, during the 19th annual Santa Monica Festival at Clover Park (25th & Ocean Park Boulevard from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., admission and parking free) Oscar is being honored. Actually, Colleen is one of six people receiving the city’s second annual “Community Hero” award for volunteerism. (Though disabled, Colleen volunteers at the fire and police departments and at her church, St. Monica’s.)
Colleen’s being honored because of Oscar’s participation in the Police Activities League’s “Read America” program at Memorial Park every Wednesday afternoon. After the kids pet him, Oscar sits patiently as they read him stories. (From the expression on his face it’s obvious that he’s heard them all before.)
I e-mailed Police Chief Tim Jackman, noting that Oscar had gone from criminal to honored citizen. He seemed at least more amused than that rather cranky animal control officer did.
The “riches” in the title of this column may be misleading because there’s no monetary compensation. But, given Oscar’s good looks and charismatic personality, I smell a possible book deal down the road.
I can just visualize Oscar at Borders sitting in a fancy chair sitting next to a pile of books. He lowers his paw onto an inkpad so that he can give paw print autographs for people in a line that stretches out the door. The customers have just bought his best-selling, tell-all autobiography, “Wags to Riches.” (Next, of course, would be an appearance on Oprah.)
But there’s more. Starting soon, Colleen, Oscar, and their fellow honorees, (including Joan Colman, a “Read America” volunteer and her cocker spaniel, Gracie) will have their photographs plastered on the side of Big Blue buses. Somehow I have a sneaky feeling that Oscar’s going to get an agent before I do.
I just hope that when Oscar is a star that he doesn’t forget the people who loved him when he was a puppy. Especially those people whose tennis balls he scattered.
When he’s not busy having conversations with dogs, Jack can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.