Have You Seen My Old English Surfdog?

Written By: Gary Shiebler

For many of us, there is one perfect summer that rises above all others. A summer so wonderful, so carefree, that it’s almost too painful to look back upon. A summer of untethered freedoms and joyful irresponsibility where days flow seamlessly into one another and nights are reckless and forgiving at the same time. A summer, where a pocketful of dollar bill tips can last for days and a quarter tank of gas will get you anywhere you needed to go. The year of my perfect summer, I worked at Gurney’s Inn as a lifeguard and bellhop and rented a beach house in Montauk with a crew that included my younger brother, Glenn, our best friend and long-time next door neighbor, Pete, a couple other childhood pals and a relatively new friend named Ted, who was also an investment banker on Wall Street. By using Ted’s work credentials and assurances to the realtor that they’d never find better tenants, we managed to charm our way into a three-bedroom ranch about a mile from the beach. Like many first-time home-sharing ventures, it had disaster written all over it. But despite the fact that we were blind and naïve as to the challenges and responsibilities of sharing a house together, we had one thing in common that kept it all together. We surfed. There’s hardly a more dedicated or close-knit family than the brothers and sisters whose lives revolve around weather reports, Sex Wax and catching the perfect left at Ditch Plains. We were no different. Surfing was the glue that held us all together and there wasn’t any dispute, argument or hangover that couldn’t be mended or diffused by a session in the water together. Of course, no surf house is complete without it’s very own “surf dog”. Ours was Waldo. What’s a surf dog? It’s the dog you see while on vacation waiting patiently in the back of a pickup truck outside Herb’s Market or Montauk Liquors (sans leash, of course) while the owner is inside getting a sandwich or picking up a six-pack of beer. It’s the dog that everybody knows at the most popular surfing spot, the dog that always gets the last bite of an Egg McMuffin or breakfast burrito. It’s the dog that is content to just hang out on the beach while you surf for five hours, maybe wandering around a bit, respectfully accepting the attention of kids building sandcastles or parents offering handouts of pretzels and crackers. It’s the dog that never judges your less-than-sterling choices regarding women or alcohol on summer Saturday nights and will even stick beside you as you quote passages from Kahlil Gibran to nice Midwestern girls you just met a few hours earlier on the beach. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that surf dogs are the coolest dogs on earth. When it came to surf dogs in Montauk, most of the locals had your basic Heinz 57 mixed-breed mutts with an occasional black or yellow lab thrown into the mix. To say that Waldo stuck out like a sore thumb on the beach would be an understatement of the highest order. Tipping the scales at ninety-plus pounds, Waldo was a purebred Old English sheepdog with an endearing bearish gate and a snowy white veil covering his sweet eyes. The beach was a significant leap for this big lovable fellow from the fairly constricted confines of his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment but he never lacked enthusiasm for trying something new and he always tried his best to fit in, bounding about in the sand and constantly greeting children and adults alike with his signature, non-stop butt-wiggle and slobbering licks and kisses. And boy, could he slobber! Trips in our open CJ-5 surf Jeep from Manhattan to Montauk on humid, summer Friday afternoons would reduce Waldo to a salivating mess of excitement and anticipation. With his trademark blue bandana draped around his neck and his ample coat of fur blowing in the breeze, Waldo’s happy face exemplified the great weekend escape from the city and with cars whizzing by us on the Long Island Expressway, he’d sit tall beneath the roll bar and slobber away, occasionally acknowledging a honk or two from SUVs and station wagons loaded with coolers, beach chairs and skylines fading away in rearview mirrors. Once we were on the two-lane road through the Hamptons, he’d settle down enough to take a drink or two from his water bowl on the back seat, only to deposit half of his refreshment in my lap while attempting to lick my cheek at traffic lights. He was a big, lovable clown of a dog, adored by everyone and appreciated by nobody more than me. While Waldo approached most things in life with fearless abandon, there was one natural phenomenon that absolutely terrified him: thunderstorms. On one such August night, I was awakened at 2:00 a.m. by a strange, hot wind blowing from the north accompanied by an almost strobe-like series of blindingly bright lightning flashes. What made it even more eerie was that there was no thunder to be heard anywhere. I’d heard locals talk about “dry lightning” storms rolling across the east end every now and then, but this was first for me. Whatever it was, the combination of the warm, devilish winds and the unyielding bursts of light with no echoing thunder put Waldo and me on edge and I cursed the fact that I’d opened every window earlier that day to air out the house. Since Waldo and I had driven out to Montauk a day early, we were all alone in our newly haunted house that night, a decision made all the more spooky by the prickly feeling of electricity and uncertainty in the air. That combination had already set Waldo’s salivary glands into overdrive and he followed me around the house like a teething infant while I closed windows in the dark. Curtains flapped and flailed at 90-degree angles and window blinds rattled angrily in the phantom winds, while white-hot flashes of lightning transformed even the most benign objects into figures of horror; hence, surfboards resting against walls were now open coffins and photos of deceased family members were coming alive in picture frames resting on jagged fireplace mantles. With only two rooms of open windows left to go, my slobbering sidekick and I headed back down the hallway towards the bedroom. As we approached the darkened intersection between the spare bedroom on the right and the main bathroom on the left, a vicious crosswind blew through the house, causing the bathroom door to slam shut with a sound and force usually reserved for cannons and heavy artillery. Waldo, in an amazing display of weightlessness and agility, shot straight up into the air, as if jettisoned from a spring-loaded trampoline, and landed-all ninety-plus pounds of him- in my arms, like a baby just thrown out of a burning three-story window. I had all but passed out when that bathroom door slammed. But the ridiculous sight of a big, drooling bear of a dog cradled in my arms reduced me to knee-buckling laughter and we collapsed to the hallway floor in a heap. Realizing the danger had passed, Waldo started licking my face with the broadest of strokes, my half-hearted protests only adding to his enthusiasm. When he finally stopped, I noticed that both the lightning and wind had disappeared as quickly as they had arisen. I leaned my head against the wall and closed my eyes, pleased to feel the familiar southwest breezes of summer that had quietly returned, gently blowing through windows we hadn’t quite reached. “Surf might be good tomorrow,” I said to Waldo. “Really good.” And like every great surf dog, Waldo would be right there with me.