Ultimo aggiornamento:  12.06.2020 11.11

Albert Payson Terhune….and I

By Lucio Rocco


As I was looking for the appropriate words, in order to  write a formal, pleasant biography of Albert Payson Terhune, which I had previously done when writing that   of Eric Mowbray Knight, a thought came into my head; why not narrate about the short memory in which I ‘met’ Albert Payson Terhune  for the first time. I know, it would have been better if I had not taken risks, and  I  could have given straightforward facts, instead of bogging myself into old memories going back more than half a century; however, as, I myself, like  Pascoli, have  a 'little child' inside me who tells me what to do, and, who, I not dare contradict, I will now tell  you what I remember about a  faraway day, silencing my conscious with the knowledge that, for each of us, a click suffices to move on to something new, if we like.

The title I had chosen, however, at a certain point  seemed inappropriate, therefore, I limited myself to adding my irreverent presence next to Terhune’s name, to whom, naturally, all the merit of this  goes to.

I still remember that day, and it is somewhat strange, as, lately my memories seem to fade one after the other, as if swallowed by the fog of years gone by. It was on the day of my twelfth birthday. I remember  I was in Naples my childhood city, which was not so different  from the Naples of today; chaotic, noisy, trustworthy, colourful, and, as always, full of life. Coloured by the colours of the sun, which, luckily always shines there. Furthermore, the sun   lights up with optimism, which, consequently, makes the people smile, even if there is no reason to do so. That smile is what I have missed the most since I left.

I have never found the same colours  in any  other town, however, the  little shop my father and I entered that day, possessed a dusty, grey colour, which covered hundreds, maybe thousands of books stacked up everywhere; on the floor, on the balconies, on the shelves,  on the only chair that you could have sat on, in the shop window, which was, however, the only place where someone had tried to give a quick tidy-up, probably, in order to  remind the rare  customer where they were.

"I have just the book for you" said the little man, behind the counter, looking towards me, after my father had explained what we were looking for. He then  disappeared  into a tiny storeroom, from which you could catch a glimpse of more stacks of books, and the word ’new’; these books had probably never been sold.

Evidently, the little man managed  not to suffocate in that pokey environment, in which I felt  I could only enter by holding my breath, as I came out quite a few minutes later.

I had a book in my hand. I remember  it had a yellow and black cover, on which the head of a collie towered.

No, at that time I did not know what the word meant. I only knew that that dog was called a 'Scottish  shepherd dog', but I had never seen one.

And  so I  took home my first book by Albert Payson Terhune, and that same evening, I put it to sleep along with the 'Three Musketeers', 'David Copperfield' and 'Robin Hood'.

What Irving Litvag wrote in his biography on Albert Payson Terhune, is exactly what happened to me in the days that followed:

”You took this Collie dog and told stories about its greatness and goodness and love and eternal loyalty, and with your story telling skill, you made us actually fall in love with the Collie dog! The Collie became the dog we always wanted to have, but never did. Perhaps even more than that ... maybe he became the friend we always wanted to find, or even  the brother, or the father. And this dog, authentic-imaginary dog ... this Collie dog took hold of us and will not let us go”.

This is how I fell in love with the Collie dog, without ever having heard of Lassie the dog.

I had  to wait until Sunday, being busy with school, homework, hanging out with my friends in the ’giardinetti’ (a little garden), near my house, before I could start reading. I am talking about more than a half a century ago, and life was rather different from what it is today.

However, on Sunday morning I jumped out of bed, ate my usual milk ‘zuppa’, which my mother had prepared for me (I often ask myself how much milk I have drunk in my life, seeing as I still have not stopped), and among all those books which I knew by heart, I pulled out ‘Lad: a dog, by Albert Payson Terhune’, and I began to read.

"Lad was an eighty-pound collie, thoroughbred in spirit as well as in blood. He had the benign dignity that was a heritage from endless generations of high-strain ancestors. He had, too, the gay courage of a d'Artagnan, and an uncanny wisdom. Also - who could doubt it, after a look into his mournful brown eyes - he had a Soul".

I did not know at the time, but those words were about to make a change in my life, as they had, (but I only came to know about this later), the life  of numerous American boys.

One twelve-year old boy in particular, at that time, had a fervid imagination, not being yet bombarded with images from the television, from the Internet, or from the Web, and turning page after page, started to learn about ‘The Place’, about its  surrounding woods, its lake, and its avenues. Without even having to close my eyes, I would find myself walking in the grass with the squirrels climbing the trees, and the rabbits hopping away. Today I ask myself how could I have known what a squirrel was like, as I had never seen one.

I imagined myself reading, on the carpet, in front of the fire, in the sitting-room of the Villa or in some cool place on the veranda, or even in the shade of a tree in the avenue. It did not take long for the Master and the Mistress of the Villa (thanks to my imagination) to turn into my parents, and all the world  around me became, as if by magic, that which the pages of the book was painting for me.

And what about Lad?

Lad had captured my attention from the very first moment he had been taken out of his master’s coat pocket, and had been placed “shivering and squealing on the veranda floor”.

It did not take long, thanks to my imagination, to make that imaginary dog mine.

He was always around me. The master of the little space between my bed and the wall; waiting outside school at the end of classes; under the table while I did my homework. I could show him to no one, however, he was a real and concrete presence - so powerful is a child’s mind!

Subsequently, I went on to read many more books by Terhune, and I also read the one written by Knight. I have also watched a myriad of films and series about Lassie the dog, which, however, made me understand that, not giving any blame to Knight, Lassie was crushed by both the cinema and the T.V. who turned him into a commercial product. Nevertheless, Lassie, being a good shepherd-dog, did what was asked of him and, furthermore, in Europe the collie owes its popularity to him.

It is strange that the Sunnybank collies did not have the same destiny. The difference between the two is that, Lassie was one writer’s fruit of fantasy, while the Sunnybank collies were real; they were the Lads, the Wolfs, the Treves, the Bruces, they were the collies that walked in the avenues of The Place; the collies that bathed in the lake; the collies that numerous young Americans could actually go and see, touch; it was all this that helped imprint these dogs in their minds and hearts forever. Those dogs were exactly the same as the ones the children read about and could find in St.Nicholas, in Country Gentleman, in Red Book, and in Ladies’ Home Journal. Those dogs had a real life, with passions, pains, faults, and virtues; they grew old and then would die, therefore, it was extremely easy to believe their stories. Landseer and Terhune were united by the same fate. Terhune’s pen and Landseer’s paintbrush both portrayed what their eyes could see in front of them.

What have Albert Payson Terhune’s books taught me?

They have taught me to observe nature, to understand and respect the role of each of its children; to look at our collies like they observed the shepherds in their solitude in the Scottish Highlands. The collies were their only companions during the day, and it was to them that they turned to for help with their work. Those shepherds spoke to their dogs as if they were human beings, and those dogs learnt to understand the words, the gestures, the expressions their masters made very quickly, and they learnt to prevent, to think, even to decide.

By reading Terhune’s books I understand that a collie deserves respect. This dog  can be quite pleasant in aspect and have a good pedigree, maybe one full of titled ancestors, or on the other hand, without. A collie could have been born in the Scottish Highlands, or in the most isolated place on earth, however, it’s a collie, and a collie has a soul, and I, like Terhune, am  totally convinced of this. Being racist towards dogs, means having hit the bottom-line of ignorance.

Three years went by from that day, and finally I got my first collie It was nothing like Lad, but it was my collie.

It was then, I think, that I decided I wanted to do more for this breed of dog, and if I have failed, at least I can say I have tried. The only worry that this choice has left me, is when Albert Payson Terhune clearly warned:

”Sooner or later, every dog’s master’s memory becomes a graveyard; peopled by wistful little furry ghosts that creep back unbidden, at times, to  a semblance of their olden lives”,

and this, at the end, however, becomes unbearable for those who love their dogs in the just way.

Albert Payson Terhune died on the 18 February 1942,in Sunnybank. He had not yet reached the age of seventy. He was buried  not far from the graves of all his collies, and on his tombstone  a sentence by Saint Paul is quoted, which explains  the sense of all his life:

                                          ”I have fought a good fight.”