Chapter I: Getting to Know You

I vividly remember the first time I saw Oscar de la Rascal, a Golden Retriever puppy who would grow up to be a Santa Monica legend. Case in point, his photo was once on the Big Blue Bus as a “Community Hero. This was because of “America Reads,” a PAL program for at-risk kids who would read to Oscar sitting so patiently in a chair you’d swear he was listening to every word!

On this day, Oscar was 5 months old and nestled in the lap of his owner, and my neighbor, Colleen Hughes. They were in her motorized wheelchair on the cement pathway from Ocean View Park. I was late to the tennis courts but when I saw Oscar he began wagging his tail and he was irresistible.

Oscar was a trained seizure alert dog and, as such, he would always look right at you. Whatever the reason, everyone commented he had remarkably human facial expressions. Colleen set Oscar down and he raced gleefully toward me.

I dropped my tennis bag and bent my knees to greet him. But, to my bewilderment, Oscar raced right past me and literally dove into the bag so only his tail stuck out. With his front paws he began furiously flinging tennis balls onto the cement that slowly rolled downhill.

As I began picking the balls up, finally. Oscar found the one in the bag he apparently wanted and held it proudly in his mouth. Really late now, I quickly petted him goodbye and raced to the courts.

That night Colleen asked if I’d consider walking Oscar regularly. “Let’s try it one time,” I said. The next day, with Michael, a friend and tennis partner, we took Oscar to the courts. All but two were empty so we decided, if we shut the gate, we could take Oscar off the leash and let him hunt tennis balls to his heart’s content.

Like a kid in a candy store, Oscar chased balls on the court and even some stuck under the mesh matting on the fences. His dogged (no pun intended) determination was hilarious until it was time to leave.

For fifteen frustrating minutes, Oscar, with a ball in his mouth, played keep away. Meanwhile the kids getting a lesson on the next court were laughing hysterically and who could blame them. Two middle-aged men unable to corral a playful puppy.

Much as Oscar was adorable, as I walked back to Colleen’s, I sensed he might also be incorrigible. Before I broke the bad news, Colleen blurted out, “So, do you want to do this every day?” Yikes!

Diplomatically, I explained Oscar was too feisty and wouldn’t obey. She said sternly, “Jack, just talk to him!” She assured me he would listen and pleaded with me to try just one more time.

The next day with Oscar, I stopped halfway to the courts. I made him sit and gave him a a lecture. (Fortunately, no one was around to see me doing this.)

“If you don’t come when I call you, Oscar, this will be our second and last walk. Got it?!” He looked at me like, “Why didn’t you just say so?”

Once again, with the gate locked and Oscar off leash, he raced around the court. Finally came the moment of truth. “Oscar, we’re leaving,” I shouted. To my surprise, he raced over and obediently let me attach the leash. Of course he couldn’t have understood my “lecture.” Or had he?

When I returned to Colleen’s, I shared the inexplicable transformation in Oscar’s behavior. “I told you,” she said as if to question why I was so surprised.

What followed was fifteen years of friendship and unforgettable adventures with Oscar. He had his day job of alerting Colleen of imminent seizures but in the afternoon and evenings, it was party time for Oscar and me.

We’d hike at Will Rogers Park (he even got nose to nose with the deer); we’d dive in the ocean at lifeguard station #26; we’d go to the Twilight Concerts on the pier; and everywhere we went he’d constantly got petted by beautiful women. (Including Pamela Anderson!) If that’s a dog’s life, where do I sign up?

At 15, Oscar could no longer walk and, sadly, it was time for him to leave us. He was gently put into a wagon and wheeled into the lobby where over 300 “Oscarphiles.” came to say goodbye. (On Tuesday, when I saw Sully, George H.W. Bush’s dog, lying devotedly by the casket, I thought of Oscar.)

In the lobby, with his last look at me, he seemed to be saying “It was great knowing ya.” Given all the memories I hope to share in a book one day, the love feels forever.

Jack is at: facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and jackdailypress@aol.com

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