Color & Control:

My years with Thurber

I have been a magazine reader since age seven or eight. Every so often I joke that reading Mad taught me almost everything I needed to know about magazine editing and writing, which I have done professionally for 40 years.

A boy. A dog. A life ahead

By Stephen Trumper

have been a magazine reader since age seven or eight. Every so often I joke that reading Mad taught me almost everything I needed to know about magazine editing and writing, which I have done professionally for 40 years.

The great appeal originally was Mad’s ongoing celebration of triumphant, resounding body noises, particularly farts and belches—nirvana for my age group. I treasure a 45-rpm record that was stitched into the magazine. The song: “It’s a Gas!” The vocalist: supposedly Alfred E. Neuman. The lyrics, done to a rambunctious jazz tune: 50 shades of belch, or be-burp. My friend Alec and I would try to match it burp for burp, failing magnificently with each attempt.

Through Mad I learned about such editorial possibilities as bawdy humour, satire, parody, storyline and superbly drawn illustration. That particular recognition would lead me to The New Yorker and its rich array of illustrators. I still remember the first time I noticed a simple line drawing of a dog that, with its big ears and long body, was obviously a hound. I was transfixed.

The artist was James Thurber. My father told me he also wrote. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty quickly became a favourite. Now here was someone with imagination and a light touch. Though I later learned Thurber could be quite miserable, I thought there was a quiet jolliness to the man.

His sense of humour was helpful, particularly during the years between grades 7 and 12—tough years for me, partly because I had a couple of major surgeries, partly because I had been thrown into a new kind of social world that I had little idea how to access.

I don’t know if the teenage years are easy for anybody but, back in the 1960s, being one of the few disabled kids in a mainstream school was exhausting, overwhelming and scary. Would I ever fit in? Would I ever get a date? What kind of career opportunities could there be for a guy who walked funny and only had the use of one arm?

I needed a friend. “Maybe a dog?” I thought. I started campaigning for one. I had been in love with basset hounds for years. I adored their long, floppy ears; droopy jowls; soulful eyes; tree-stump paws; big, black, hockey-puck noses; and, politely unmentioned by most adults, the incredibly low-hanging genitals of the males.

Then came a birthday. My mother and father told me to open our front door. I looked out and what did I see: a basset puppy ambling toward me, almost tripping over an ear. He walked almost as funny as me! Within milliseconds, he had a name: Thurber.

My family clearly has some eccentricities when it comes to naming pets. My dad once told me of a great-uncle who had more than a dozen dogs over his lifetime, all named Bob. “He just liked the name,” explained my father, who for a time had two office cats named after trucking companies: Fruehauf and Smith. He even had an office duck once, named L’Orange.

Thurber made me laugh—loudly and often. It wasn’t just his looks. It was his conversations. Put a pickle or olive in front of him: He would poke it with his nose, then bark, a deep stentorian bark. Ask if he wanted to go for a walk: That deep-throated bark would become a high-pitched series of yelps and his tail would wag quicker and stronger that any set of windshield wipers.

We were an unlikely duo, but we developed a strong bond. Walking him was great exercise for me and he didn’t mind taking frequent rest breaks, which I needed. He must’ve known somehow that he shouldn’t pull the leash too hard lest I topple over, which I did occasionally through no fault of his. Each time Thurber would come back, concerned and, more often than not, lick my face and stay nearby while I pulled myself up.

A favourite Thurber memory involves a set of tub chairs in the family living room. He loved sleeping on them. He would jump up on one and settle in, carefully curling himself around the back of the chair, making sure his hind legs were just at the edge of the cushion, allowing his genitals to hang free and unencumbered behind him and in front of us.

It was an accommodation worthy of a dog who lived in the world of disability—and a dog who eagerly distracted me from worrying about what the future might bring at a time when the road ahead for soon-to-be-adults with disabilities was so uncharted.

Stephen Trumper serves on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation. He is an independent writer and editor. He is also a journalism instructor at Ryerson University.

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