By DAN WHITTLE
Neighbor Poppy Gowen was my first non-family best friend.
This sweet, elderly gentleman of wisdom was my first valued confidant. At age 4, I didn't know what confidant meant, but I sensed I could tell Poppy anything and it would stay between him and me.
Our trust began early in my life, dating back to my age 3 or thereabouts, when I suffered with severe ear aches each winter.
When all else failed to ease my suffering, parents transported me by wagon and mule to Poppy Gowen's house, where he would patiently blow soothing warm smoke from his pipe into my infected and aching ears.
To this day, when I get a whiff of sweet-smelling pipe smoke my mind drifts back to cherished "Poppy Gowen" days.
Our farm pets taught us about loyal friendships too.
Poppy's dog named "Tonto" (named after the Lone Ranger radio program) and my dog named "Hitler" (named after World War II) provided another example of loyal friendship early in my boyhood.
Each morning if Hitler didn't make the half-mile trot down to visit Tonto, Poppy's dog would soon be jaunting briskly up the farm lane to check on Hitler.
When Hitler aged and became too feeble to make the daily trek, no problem, for Tonto took up the slack.
It was during Hitler's old age infirmities that Tonto increased his daily check-on-Hitler trips to both morning and night.
Those two farm dogs demonstrated a loyalty in life that I still admire.
I repeat: Friendship is not limited to mankind.
Fast forward to present-day life: Two young unbroken mules watch each morning when Woodbury-based Middle Tennessee Mule Skinner Association-member Danny Fraley leaves his farm house.
If Fraley's truck heads in the barn's direction, the young mules are there waiting for him. If the farmer drives out through the pasture those colt mules take a short cut and are there waiting.
When Fraley hooks his current team of mature work mules to the turning plow the young mules loyally make each step and rounds through the field that Fraley and his working mules make.
"Whoa" now, and meet "Florence the Baptist" cat!!
Nearly two decades ago, as Hilda Stuart was motoring toward her home in Smyrna from her bank of employment in Murfreesboro, she noticed a pitiful and shivering little black feline abandoned outside of Florence Baptist Church.
Initially, the vet diagnosed the cold kitty's chances of survival as slim, but advised Hilda how to treat the cat.
"I used an eye-dropper to give Florence her prescribed meds and nourishment," Hilda noted.
Today, 17-years-later, "Florence the Baptist" cat still reigns supreme at the Stuart household.
Now, please indulge me as I tell one more good dog's tale: For years Buddy, a big burly English bulldog, helped Florence the cat run things inside the Stuart home. To say that John and Hilda Stuart merely like animals would be understating the obvious.
I had visited the Stuart household a few times when one morning Buddy parked his ample bulldog backside atop my feet and shoes.
"That's Buddy's way of saying he wants you to stay a while," John described.
But eventually, age begin creeping up on the large but cuddly canine. It was one a fateful, dreadfully-cold winter's night that Hilda asked Buddy if he needed to get up from his sick bed, and go outside.
"We could tell that it was painful for Buddy to move, but he went outside and did his business," Hilda shared. "Then, when he came slowly back to his bed here in the dining room, Buddy laid down and died quietly. To the very end Buddy did everything we asked trying through his last breath of life to please us."
The next day, there was not a dry eye to be seen as Buddy's legion of neighborhood human and animal friends gathered for his burial in the Stuart's back yard.
Today, Buddy's grave remains respectfully covered in flowers, faithfully supplied by the Stuarts, their daughter, Jennifer, and son and daughter-in-law, (country singers) Marty and Connie Smith.
Good, loyal friend pets should never be forgotten…