Sunday, November 8, 2009

Ever Faithful and True: A Dog Named Sideways

A couple of weeks ago I paid tribute here to my dad who had recently passed away. In my brief recollection of his life, I noted that he began his college career at the University of Michigan, in 1942, only to be drafted into the army the following year. He served in Patton’s 3rd Army as it fought its way across Europe, from Cherbourg, France, to the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, to near Pilzen, Czechoslovakia by the time VE Day finally rolled around. After seeing a lifetime’s worth of death and destruction, he was only 22 years old when he was able to resume his studies, this time at the Michigan Institute of Technology, during the fall term of 1946. He and my mom moved to Houghton, at the northern tip of the Keweenaw - that small finger of land pointed into the heart of Lake Superior - on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where they lived in a small house trailer along the banks of Portage River. Perhaps this would have been an ideal out-of-the-way place to live after surviving combat during World War II. But the Keweenaw is perhaps the snowiest place in the continental United States, where temperatures well below zero are common throughout the winter with annual snowfall upwards of 300 inches and lake-effect storms off Superior can last for days. So, after a winter scraping frost off the walls of their snow-bound trailer, my mom decided four years of this was above and beyond the call of duty, even for native Michiganders. Dad agreed to seek out warmer climes and applied to Georgia Tech and the University of Alabama. Tech won out and my folks moved to Atlanta in the late summer of 1947 and remained there while Dad earned his bachelor and master degrees in industrial engineering. After graduating, Dad took a job in Chicago and my folks moved there in the autumn of 1950. I was born the following spring.

Fast forward to October 1960. I recall it being a cool, crisp autumn weekend in Atlanta. My family had traveled down from our home in Asheville, North Carolina to attend Dad’s 10th college reunion at Georgia Tech. We spent most of that weekend on the Tech campus, and I recollect my folks talking with lots of people they seemed to know. None of this interested me. But then there was the big homecoming parade which included what appeared to me a myriad collection of "Ramblin’ Wrecks" - old cars and trucks redesigned and reconfigured by the engineering students. I was intrigued. Of course, the intended highlight of that weekend was the big homecoming game at which the Tech Yellow Jackets (5-5 that season) routed the Green Wave of Tulane (3-6-1) with a score of 14-6 (nothing like the 1916 game again Cumberland College which Tech won 222-0, scoring nine touchdowns in each of the first two quarters alone. At least Tech beat Tulane; that was important.

The game, and the parade that preceded it, certainly made an impression on me as a nine year old kid, but the thing I remember most about that weekend in Atlanta is the story of Sideways, the small dog that for a short time in the late 1940s was the beloved mascot of Tech’s students. As we were walking across the campus to Grant Stadium before the game, my dad took me by the hand and led me to a small grassy patch near the Tech Tower, probably the most prominent campus landmark, where he showed me Sideways’ well-tended grave marked by a small memorial bearing a black and white photograph.

Ever Faithful and True
Companion of Student Body of Ga.Tech.

Even though Sideways had been dead for three years when Dad arrived on campus, he soon learned the story of this beloved terrier and he told it to me as if he and Sideways had been bosom buddies. I never had a dog when I was growing up and so I did not understand how important such a relationship can be for some people. Even on that crisp autumn day in 1960, ten years after Dad had left his college days behind him, the memory of Sideways was still very much alive for him, and now for me. Tech students still knew who he was and what he meant to those who came before them. The memory of Sideways was long even though his time on campus was short.

As the story goes, the little black and white dog with a distinctive black patch around one eye, had originally lived at a boardinghouse on North Avenue and for reasons unknown was thrown from a car in front of the nearby Varsity, the well-known student hang-out, on March 1, 1945. She was rescued by a group of students who took her back to the campus and nursed her back to health. Unfortunately, the injuries were serious enough that she would walk through the rest of her life at her own unique sideways gait. If she did not have a name before she came to Georgia Tech, she had one now, a name still spoken with reverence. Whether Sideways was always faithful and true may be debated. Dad told me how she would spend the night in different dormitory rooms, depending on who offered her the best food secreted out of the campus dining hall. Other times she would be "invited" to dine at one of the fraternity houses. During the day she would follow students to their classes; an interesting lecture would hold her attention while a boring class would quickly put her to sleep. No wonder the students grew to love her as she proved to be a reliable barometer for what classes to avoid, if at all possible. Sideways frequently led the Tech football team onto the field at Grant Stadium and was so beloved that she was once briefly kidnapped by some students from the arch rival University of Georgia ("To Hell With Georgia"). Despite the love and care shown to her on campus, Sideways managed to somehow ingest some rat poison and died on August 14, 1947. She was buried with honors in the shadow of Tech Tower.

A few years ago I happened to be in Atlanta on business. At the end of the day, and having no where else to go, I caught a cab to the Georgia Tech campus and headed directly over to Tech Tower. My memory of that autumn day in 1960 was still strong, but I had to walk around a bit before I found Sideway’s grave; it was pretty much where I remembered it from my visit four decades earlier. A professor walked up to me and asked me if I needed help finding where I was going, but I had found what I was looking for. He told me that more recently the grave marker had been realigned several degrees from when I first saw it in 1960 . . . to symbolize that little dog’s sideways cant through life. Today, over 60 years after her death, Sideways is still fondly remembered.

So how could such a little dog evoke such a strong memory for so many? And why did this story have such an impact on me? Perhaps because Sideways was like so many of us; maybe we are all going through life a few degrees off the courses we have set for ourselves. Dad’s life, while long and eventful, and ultimately successful, did not go the way he planned. There were victories and failures, peaks and valleys. Heaven only knows my own life has gone in directions I never intended or planned for. We can only hope that our time on this planet, however long or short it might be, will serve some bigger purpose. And we can hope that others, reflecting on that time, will in the final determination, recognize that we were faithful and true to the best of our intentions. Quite a lesson from a little dog that walked sideways into the hearts of so many.

NEXT WEEK: Where Have All the Corn Dogs Gone?

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