Free Days With George: Learning Lifes Little Lessons from One Very Big Dog | Chapter 28 of 34

Author: Colin Campbell | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1236 Views | Add a Review

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SEVENTEEN

Over the next few months I rented boards from Bruce Jones’s almost every weekend. Each time I thought, This is great! I’m going to go surfing on my own today! And each time I found myself out in the water on my board, lying flat on my belly with a giant, wet dog riding high in front of me, looking very much like the figurehead on an ancient tall ship (but with a lot more fur).

I can’t say that I wasn’t happy with this turn of events, because I was. George and I had found an activity we could do together, one that was “ours” and set us apart from the rest of the world. And that in itself felt great. Plus George got me out of the house, and for the duration that we were in the water, I didn’t think about anything at all except the joy of surfing with George. At a time when happiness for me was hard to come by, our weekend excursions were a much-needed source of energy and light.

I’d work all week and be focused and fine at the office, but something in me still felt not quite right. It was like I was going through the motions of life but not really living it. And I was still finding it difficult to establish a social life in L.A. Not that there weren’t opportunities; I just didn’t know how to manage them. The hurt of my past still lingered, and I found myself making mistakes when trying to connect with new people. It was a struggle that I kept secret.

My real solace came on weekends when George and I would head to the beach in the morning. “Ready to go?” I’d ask as I took the board down from the SUV.

Wag, wag, wag.

George followed right by my side as we made our way to the shoreline, which was full of dogs and their owners playing in the sand and surf. Instead of joining their antics the way he had before we’d discovered our sport, George focused on me and our banged-up rental surfboard. He’d look me in the eye as if to say, “Time to do our thing.”

Out we’d go through the white water, navigating the difficult break and finally reaching the right spot to pick up the waves. We both fell off the board a lot, but even that was fun. We kept to smaller waves at first and eventually, with practice, we began to get better at riding. George started to figure out when to swim close, when to hop on the board, how to balance his weight and leave me room enough to steer us back to shore.

No matter how many times we went out, the excitement of the ride never wore off. Seeing all 140 pounds of Newf sitting regally in front of me, as we glided across the surface of the water, never failed to make me smile. Occasionally George would turn his head, trying to look back at me. I’d catch his face in profile, and he had that expression of serenity you see when a dog hangs its head out a car window. I had to laugh.

At the shore after every single wave, he would find me and lick my face. Every—single—time. Surfing wasn’t some novelty act for George. He got on the board because he loved it. He was truly having the time of his life.

Most afternoons after we’d been out for a while, George would nap under the umbrella to escape the worst of the sun. When he did, I’d creep off as quietly as I could to surf on my own. All dogs pick up on cues—some subtle, some surfboard sized—George appeared to have a tracking device on me. Before I’d made it ten feet into the water, he’d be awake and bounding to the shoreline, right there beside me. Never once did I manage to get a ride in on my own. But the truth is that I didn’t really care. I loved to surf with George.

One day, determined to surf by myself, I left him at home when I went to the beach. I rented a smaller board and had an amazing time catching waves, but the whole time I felt guilty. I kept replaying the sad look on his face as he stood by the door when I left my house. It actually seemed wrong that he wasn’t with me. This was the first and only time I left him behind.

Over those months at the beach people regularly approached us after we’d been out in the waves. “You guys are amazing!” they’d say. “I’ve never seen a dog who loves to surf the way yours does. How did you train him?”

“I didn’t,” I’d respond with a shrug. “He just knows how to do it.”

Occasionally I would hear about that dog-surfing competition at Huntington and what a great fund-raiser the event was for shelter dogs.

“Will we see you and George there this year?”

“I’m not sure.”

The more I heard about the event, the more unsure I became—big crowds, lots of attention, TV cameras and everyone watching as dogs and their owners took to surfboards to compete against each other. Outside of work events, I wasn’t comfortable in crowds and I wasn’t sure I wanted to subject George to a competition where there’d be pressure to win. Over the years I’d been ultra-competitive at hockey. I wanted to win every time I stepped on the ice. I didn’t feel that way about surfing, which I considered a spiritual or lifestyle activity rather than a competitive sport. I especially didn’t feel competitive with George; I just liked doing things with him quietly and alone. It’s how we connected.

Also, after almost three months of living in California I’d finally figured out how to get around, but I still hadn’t shaken the core feeling of insecurity. I carried it around with me everywhere. I could focus on new things and new people at work; however, on the weekends I really valued quiet time by myself and with George. A dog-surfing contest certainly didn’t qualify as quiet time, and though this didn’t quite surface as a conscious thought, it made me uneasy.

But then I was online one day, and I came across a link from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I read about the prevalence of “high kill” shelters throughout L.A. and Orange Counties. Hundreds of dogs were being put to death each week simply because the shelters had no room for them or no funds to find them homes. I felt sick as I looked at the photos of these animals, who through no fault of their own were going to die. This could easily have happened to George.

George had started to enjoy life and was giving back, so I thought, Why not? This is a chance for each of us to give back together, to help other dogs in need. I went back to the Surf City Surf Dog website, submitted my credit card number and registered George for the event. It was a great cause and we’d have fun. We would need to be in Huntington Beach at 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday to check in to the event. That was early, but I would deal with that then.

When that Sunday arrived, I groggily fumbled for the alarm clock to kill the annoying sound. As I struggled to open my eyes and regain consciousness, I felt a wet, sloppy tongue rub over my face like a big brush at a car wash. The dog-surfing competition had seemed like a great idea when I’d registered weeks earlier, but at this sleep-deprived moment, it seemed like a horrible idea.

“Lie down, George,” I muttered into my pillow. “We’re going back to sleep.”

Lick. Slobber. Wag.

I was determined to let sleep wash back over me, but George would have none of it. He made his intent known by sprawling across my back. Then, in case I hadn’t noticed that, he gently nibbled on my ear, inhaling and exhaling right into my eardrum. I felt like I was in a wind tunnel. A loud, wet wind tunnel.

“George, seriously. Go lie down.”

It was no use. As I lay there, I thought back to my grandfather’s enthusiasm each morning at his cottage as he’d tell my brother and me about all the important things we had to do—swimming and building sand castles and flying kites—things worth getting out of bed for.

“Yeah, okay,” I decided. “Let’s go surfing. Let’s do this, George.” As soon as he saw me moving, his tail began to swish and his enthusiasm became contagious.

I got out of bed, threw on some board shorts and grabbed a hoodie and my flip-flops. I gathered our usual beach stuff in a bag, took George for a quick walk, fed him, then hooked him up to his leash and loaded him, our board and myself into the SUV. A quick stop at the Coffee Bean for the requisite early-morning latte and we hit the road, bound for Huntington Beach and our first encounter with the sport of dog surfing.

What am I doing? I thought as I sipped my coffee and headed down the highway with George in the back. Competitive dog surfing? I must be nuts.

By California standards it wasn’t the nicest day. It was foggy and gray along the coast, and the waves, visible out the passenger window, were bigger than usual. These waves would be tough even for experienced surfers. How in the world were dogs to stay on surfboards today?

I looked through the rearview mirror at George. He was sniffing excitedly at the open crack of the window, gulping in the moist ocean air. “This is going to be crazy, buddy. I need you to listen to me today. We’re going to do something new.” Like all the times I’ve ever spoken to George, I was saying things mostly for my own benefit, and wondered how much he understood, and yet I was always certain that he was listening.

We made it to Huntington Beach by 7:45, in time for the 8:00 a.m. check-in. I found a spot to park, opened the back door and let my big, galumphing dog jump out of the vehicle. Before walking down to the beach, we watched from afar and took in the crazy scene before us.

Huntington that Sunday was not the dog beach it normally was. Not in the least. It looked more like a carnival site and was filled with tents and exhibits, banners, foam surfboards, and hundreds of people and dogs of all shapes and sizes. Dogs were running around freely, playing and barking, while others were on leashes and stayed close by their owners’ sides. The waves crashed on the beach, but the crackling walkie-talkies, the announcements from loudspeakers, the music playing in the background, the constantly chattering crowd and barking dogs matched the thunderous noise of the surf.

“Wow, this looks pretty crazy, George.” We made our way down to the beach and were swallowed up in the circus atmosphere. There were bulldogs, pugs, retrievers and poodles. There was even a collie mix in a Superman costume, and a friendly pit bull with a plastic shark fin attached to his back. I couldn’t get over the gear some of the dogs and owners had: surfboards emblazoned with dogs’ names, and matching life jackets and custom-made T-shirts.

Then there was George and me. I was wearing rumpled clothes I’d salvaged from the floor, and George was dressed in nothing more than his plain red collar. We made our way through chaos with our big, banged-up old board. “Excuse me, pardon me,” I said, clearing a path through the sea of canines and owners all the way to the registration tent.

As we walked, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that people were stepping back to look at us. They were nudging each other and pointing at George in disbelief. Some shook their heads and others simply laughed and said, “Not a chance,” or “No way.” And that’s when I realized that George was the largest dog at the competition—by far. He was a sumo wrestler in a room full of jockeys. It was also when I realized that no one in that crowd could believe George could surf.

We made our way to the end of the line at the registration tent and stood behind a guy with a rugged, round bulldog and a woman with a pug. After a few minutes it was our turn.

“Good morning,” said a nice volunteer with dark hair and glasses. She was bent over the previous dog’s registration papers so she hadn’t yet looked up to see who was in front of her. When she did, George was staring at her at eye level.

“Whoa! That’s one big dog. He’s not … you’re not—Is he surfing today?”

I didn’t know what to say. For a second I felt like George and I were the awkward kids at school, the ones who are always picked last to be on the team. “Well,” I finally managed, “he’s going to try. Aren’t you, George?”

George wagged his tail when he heard his name, leaned forward and kissed the woman’s cheek.

She laughed and patted his head. “You’re a big sweetie, aren’t you? What kind of dog is he? He’s huge!”

“He’s a Newfoundland.”

“Wow, he’s the biggest dog we’ve ever had. I hope he knows how to surf.”

“Oh, he should be okay,” I said.

“Really?” She eyed me and then George.

“I think so,” I said. “But we’ll see how he does with all these people around. We’re not really used to crowds.”

“Okay, let’s get him checked in.” She shrugged, and then completed George’s registration form. She explained that all the dogs were divided into different weight classes and that, not surprisingly, George was most definitely a heavyweight—dogs sixty pounds and up. Dogs and their handlers had ten minutes to catch as many waves as possible. A handler was allowed to help the dog onto the surfboard and get the surfboard positioned to catch the waves. The rest, like staying balanced and on the board, was up to the dog. George stared at her as she spoke, waiting for her to finish, and then planted a kiss on her the moment she paused.

“Oh, George, you’re such a gentle giant,” she said, as she looked back up at me. “Do you have any questions?”

“So he has to surf by himself? I’m not allowed on the board with him?”

“Yup. Those are the rules.” I started to let that sink in, when she continued, “Most of the bigger dogs tend to jump off or lose their balance and fall because they’re tall and have a high center of gravity. The short-legged breeds tend to do better. He might have some trouble.”

George had never tried surfing by himself, and I had no idea if that would be a problem.

“Do you have a life jacket for him?” she asked, as she scratched George’s ears.

“No,” I said. “I never thought of bringing one. He’s a very strong swimmer.”

“Well, he’s going to need a life jacket today,” she said. “It’s a liability issue. I just hope we have one big enough.” She searched in a box of equipment and handed me the biggest life jacket she could find.

“Try it on him.”

I was never inclined to dress George up in scarves or sweaters or fancy collars the way so many other dog owners did. It just didn’t seem to suit him. So aside from his standard red collar, he’d never worn any kind of garment before. I adjusted the straps of the ratty bright-orange jacket to their maximum limit and clipped George in. The jacket wasn’t nearly big enough. George looked like he was wearing a small child’s hand-me-down. Still, the life jacket was on and it was not restricting his movement. She handed me a green competitor’s scarf and I tied it around his neck to complete his dashing ensemble.

“What do you think, George?” He wagged his tail, gazed at me with excited eyes and jumped up to lick my face, resting his front paws on my shoulders and almost knocking me down. He was quite a sight: standing on his hind legs, he was nearly six feet tall, and wearing his tiny life jacket and green neck scarf—all told, he resembled an oversized cartoon character. And he wasn’t even on the surfboard yet.

“This is going to be interesting. Good luck, guys!” she said, and added, “You might need some.”

“Thanks,” I answered. “Come on, George.” After a tug of the leash, George jumped back to all fours and we moved out of the line. As we did, a group of people nearby pulled out their cell phones and took pictures. George noticed the attention and immediately stretched out on his back in the sand, so that the whole crowd cooed “Aw-w-w-w-w” in unison and congregated around him to provide a mass belly rub.

I used that moment to process what the volunteer had just said: that George had to ride the board on his own. Whenever we’d surfed, it was always in tandem, George on the front of the board and me kneeling on the back. I had no idea if he could or would surf on his own. A sense of uneasiness set in. Had I just set George up for failure by entering him in a competition to do something he couldn’t do? And what was I supposed to do when we were out there in front of all those people and cameras if George couldn’t get on the board? And if he did get on the board, what if he didn’t want to surf without me?

All these questions made me feel queasy, but when I looked down at the sand in front of me and saw George sprawled out, oblivious to my concern, soaking up all the love of his new admirers, I realized I was over-thinking the matter. This was, after all, just a fun event to raise money for dogs—dogs needing homes. If George was happy in the midst of the crowd, I could be, too. I was ready to help him get on the surfboard, but if for some reason he didn’t want to, that was fine. The money would still go to a good cause.

With George fully registered and equipped, we headed back to the SUV to get our towels, sunscreen, water, bowls, umbrella and other odds and ends. I set up our umbrella in a nice, quiet spot away from the Surf Dog judges’ tent. “Let’s just sit here a minute, George,” I said, and he plopped his rear end next to me. Together we took in the sights and sounds around us.

I’m convinced that such a crazy event has never been seen anywhere outside Southern California. The crowd was definitely growing as the start time neared. There were even more dogs in costume now, some wearing sunglasses and some sporting custom-made board shorts that matched the ones worn by their owners. The Beach Boys echoed over the loudspeakers, and many owners had already donned their wet suits, preparing to take their family pets into the water to compete. The coconut smell of sunscreen blended with that unmistakable eau de wet dog perfume. It was an olfactory experience like nothing else.

The number of volunteers seemed to have doubled in the forty-five minutes we’d been at the beach and the vendor booths set up in rows on the sand were now hawking everything from dog food, to dog toys, to dog collars and every other kind of dog-related paraphernalia under the sun. George was getting more and more excited, prancing on his front paws in that way of his that meant, “Let me loose!”

“You need to behave, big guy.” George eyed me with a look that said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but you gotta let me go play.”

“Okay, George, go have fun,” I said, unclipping him from the leash. He gave me one big lick and then ran down to the water, followed by a pack of other dogs wearing life jackets that actually fit. It was one of the strangest sights I have ever seen. Evidently I wasn’t the only one to notice the oddity, because soon enough a group of photographers was taking pictures of the ragtag pack running in circles and jumping in and out of the water.

I overheard an older couple on a nearby blanket: “See that big black-and-white dog over there?” She was pointing at George.

“Yeah,” her husband answered.

“He’s going to be surfing today.”

“No way! I can’t wait to see that!”

“George!” I called out after a few minutes of watching him play with his new friends. “Come here!” His big head went up, and he trotted over to me, looking waterlogged but happy with himself in his ridiculously tiny life jacket and wet neck scarf.

“Good boy, George,” I said as he walked right under the umbrella, following my instructions on the first command. He barreled into me and shook his coat, sending spray and sand everywhere and eliciting an audible chorus of shrieks and laughter from the other beach umbrellas in our midst. George was basking in the attention and excitement, glancing all around him and practically smiling from head to toe. I thought back to nine months earlier and the terrified dog in my dining room, too frightened to even move on his own. He was hardly recognizable as the same dog. It was an incredible transformation, and for a moment I was overcome by a feeling of pride.

“Here, big guy,” I said. “Have a drink.” I offered him his water bowl. As George splashed his water about, getting more on our blanket than into his mouth, a thin brunette with a huge smile walked over to us and peeked under our umbrella.

“Hi, I’m Lisa Scolman,” she said. “I’m one of the organizers of the event.” She extended a hand and I shook it.

“I’m Colin,” I replied. Then, nodding at my sloppy, wet dog, I added, “And this is George.”

“Hello, George!” she said. “Some of the staff told me a ‘super-huge’ dog had entered. I wanted to meet him for myself.”

George took to Lisa right away, pushing his full wet weight into her and craning his neck to look her in the eye.

She laughed. “They weren’t kidding. You really are a big boy, aren’t you?”

She bent to pet him, and George rolled over on his shoulder and then onto his back, showing her his belly, which was covered in sand.

“Someone’s already been swimming.” She rubbed his belly, not the least bit concerned with getting wet or sandy herself. “So he’s really surfed before?”

“Yes,” I said. “We have surfed together a bit, haven’t we, George?”

She shook her head, amazed. “I just can’t even imagine. Most of the dogs we see in the competition have a low center of gravity, but George … well, he’s got those long legs, and he’s just so … big. So, are you going to get up on a board today, George?”

I was wondering the same thing myself.

“If nothing else, he’ll add his big personality to the event,” she said.

She had stopped petting George as she spoke, and he now put a large, wet paw on her arm as a subtle reminder that she was neglecting her belly-rubbing duty. “You sure are something, George,” she said. “I’m so glad you came out with him. It’s a fun event, and we raise a lot of money for rescue dogs.”

“That’s why we entered. He was a homeless dog, too,” I said. “He’s come a long way.”

Looking me right in the eye, she said, “You’re really lucky to have him.” And as I stood there watching George lying on his back on the beach, getting his belly rubbed by a friendly stranger on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, that’s when it struck me: you never do know where life will take you if you let it. This once-terrified and neglected dog from Canada was now in California and about to go surfing in a crazy dog-surfing contest. He really had come far, literally and figuratively.

So what about me? How had I ended up here? A year and a half earlier, I’d suffered the biggest loss of my life. And now I’d been transplanted from everything I once knew to this beach, in another country so far away from my home. When I was completely alone, this dog had become my good friend. He got me up in the morning. He made me laugh, forced me to take walks and meet new people. He even brought me to the beach, where we discovered by accident the one thing we both so loved to do: surf. It suddenly hit me with profound force: I had rescued George, but really, it was he who was rescuing me.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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