Citizen Journal: Clever basset hound made name for self in Helena
I have had dogs every year I have been alive. Some lived long, full lives. Others met untimely deaths. At the passing of each, my heart was broken and my sadness would linger for months. I still think that bereavement leave should apply to all family members including those who happen to bark or mew and wear fur coats even in the summer.
One of my all-time favorites whose life was long (14 years) and full was Casey. Her name was supposed to be Cassy after Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas but my little girl could not remember to call her Cassy, hence Casey.
Casey and I moved to Helena when I took a job with the Montana state government. The Sunday I arrived in Helena to start my new job on Monday coincided with a state softball championship tournament. Having not made a reservation for a hotel room, I found myself on the street in my Honda Civic with my clothing for the week. Period.
Helena, for those not familiar with the fourth-largest state, is in the center of that 147,042 square miles with the nearest hotel room at least 50 miles away. So I bought a condo. Yup, I drove up and down the streets and saw two buildings each with four condos and seven of the eight with “for sale” in the window. I called the number and a lady answered and said she would be happy to show me the unit in the front building.
I met her at the front door and went in with her to see the unit. I told her I would buy it since I had just sold my house in Missoula and was storing my belongings and my dog at my mother’s house. I also told her that I had one condition: I had to move in that day, in fact, now! We were sitting on the carpeted steps leading to the upstairs. She did not fall over but took a deep breath and said she would have to talk to her husband. I waited in my car. It was not long before she returned and said I could move in tonight if I could pay 10 percent down; I could.
OK, now I had a place to sleep, but I had no bedding, including or a bed, nor did I have even a glass to get a drink of water.
Monday came and I went to work. My new co-workers were most understanding and came to my aid with a sleeping bag, pillow and air mattress plus some toilet paper and a bath towel.
I had seen an ad at a bank that promised a four-piece service of dinnerware plus silverware for opening a new account. I opened an account. With my new household items and a newly purchased microwave, I was in business! That was my first week in my new home: my new job and my new house. I returned to my mother’s house and piled my furniture and dog into a rented truck and towed my little orange Honda.
To finish this story I have to tell you a little about Helena and the layout of the city. My condo was on the top of one of the seven hills (Rome has nothing on Helena) and sat at the southern side of the city. From my front window I could look down on the heart of downtown, small as it was. I could see the paved footpath that ran from the corner of my house to the main street called Last Chance Gulch and up to the old fire tower, which was not used anymore but was/is a fixture of the city. My wraparound deck was perfect for looking at the lights of the city and watching the people as they strolled down the path, through the park with the anchor saved from the USS Helena and farther down the hill to the eateries and pubs below in the gulch.
When Casey and I settled in, it was a perfect setup. There was no lawn to mow and the fact that the unit was on stilts with the big deck made a perfect place for us to catch the sun and relax in the evening.
I installed a gate to keep Casey on the deck during the day and came home at noon to take her for a walk and potty break. She had a covered area with a nice bed, water and food. She lay on the deck and calmly surveyed her territory – at least for the first six months we were in Helena.
My job had changed a little and I did not get home at noon as regularly as I did during the first six months.
To my knowledge nothing was amiss except for Casey’s lack of appetite. I began to notice that she was quite tired and though she was not losing weight, she did not seem to be eating much. I changed her brand of food but she still did not eat much. And when we went into the house she made a beeline for the couch and went to sleep. OK, time for a vet check.
The vet had nothing but good things to say about this 48-pound basset hound. She had a healthy heart, good respiration, good teeth, good muscle tone, etc. OK, on with our supposedly healthy routine.
All was well until I read the newspaper one fine day and saw a picture of Casey on the front page. She was photographed in front of one of the lunch shops downtown. She was sitting up in her usual tripod stance where her butt was flat on the ground, her back legs flat out front and her generous tail acting like the third leg of the tripod. My family and I had always been aware of her ability to sit up for seemingly hours in this pose with her front legs pawing the air in case you did not notice this large dog begging for a taste of whatever was on a human’s plate.
The story in the paper identified Casey as a regular in the downtown area. She could be found in front of the candy shop at 12 o’clock sharp for her first round of snacks. From there she moved up the street until the lunch crowd thinned out. She then disappeared up the hill to the south.
I was shocked! How in the world did she get out and back into the deck that was secured by a gate with a spring lock? My first thought was to go downtown and catch her in the act but then I also thought that if the city police or dogcatcher found out who owned this dog there might be fines or impounding in the picture.
Instead I got a taller gate and put a second barrier on the top step so she could not jump over the gate even if she managed to get to the top. After all, a basset with 8-inch legs becomes about 3 feet tall when they stand on those stumpy but muscular legs. OK, mystery solved.
Casey stayed on the deck, ate dog food and did not escape again. She lived with me for eight more years when she developed epilepsy and became disabled to the point that her quality of life diminished to nil. Her last meal was of hamburger and ice cream. Her ashes are in the hills behind the house that we loved in the Rattlesnake Hills in Missoula.
Fast-forward 29 years to a rest stop in Washington state. I stopped for a potty break along with my little 7-pound rescue dog, Faye. I saw a car with a “5” on the Montana license plate. The number on the plate indicated the county where Helena is located. Not being the shy type I approached the man and woman standing behind the car having a snack. I said, “So how are things in Helena?” As we talked about state government and mutual acquaintances I mentioned that I lived in one of the condos on the southernmost hill. The husband said that he had lived near there as well.
I also said that my basset and I loved the area and loved Helena. The man stopped in mid-chew. “Basset? The one that roamed the downtown? I think her picture was in the paper.”
He then reminded his wife of the “famous or infamous” Casey. He told me that the last stop on her lunch circuit was the union hall where he was a steward for the IBEW.
Needless to say, I was surprised and touched by the encounter. The people remembered her well and told me that the luncheon crowd downtown could not figure out what had happened to the basset that could sit up for such a long time and was so gentle when she got a tidbit. I filled in the missing facts and we parted.
My wonderful, sweet Casey is not forgotten by me or the friendly strangers. I venture to say there are others in Helena who have memories of a gentle basset who took herself downtown for lunch.
Contact Jean Moffatt by email at montanamof@ gmail.com.