Dog Days. The words bring back images painted by the elders of my youth, visions of illnesses that you got only in the desperate heat of late summer.

Dog Days back then was all about some vague malady that came from dogs and found its way into the lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. Everybody believed it, and after the Fourth of July it was extremely difficult to get permission to go swimming.

“That’s how the Thompson boy got sick,” somebody whispered. “That’s what happened to the Evans twins.”

Swimming. That’s what did it. Everybody said so. Everybody believed it. Of course, few of us really wanted to swim in the ponds around my hometown late in the summer anyway. Sometime in late July they all developed a thick green crust that floated on top.

I always wondered what dogs had to do with Dog Days. I used to wander around the neighborhood and check out the local dogs for signs of serious illness. I wasn’t sure what to look for, but I felt pretty sure I’d recognize it if I saw it. Mostly the dogs I knew spent a lot of time sleeping. And they panted a lot with their tongues hanging out. I wasn’t sure that was a sign of anything sinister.

Every once in a while one of them would get up, stretch, yawn, and pad off to find better shade or maybe get a drink of water. But then he’d flop down at the new location and resume sleeping. I may have been questioning hitherto unquestioned wisdom, but the plain fact was the dogs just looked hot, not sick.

It wasn’t until years later, when I was studying celestial navigation, that I learned the true meaning of the term Dog Days. It comes from the period in July and August when the star Sirius rises with the sun. Sirius is also known as the Dog Star.

There was one August when the dogs actually were sick. Most of us had never heard much about rabies, but we knew what hydrophobia was. We also knew that hydrophobia, like lockjaw, which you got from stepping on a rusty nail, was incurable. So, when the cry went out one hot Saturday afternoon that there was a dog on the streets that had hydrophobia, the whole town was seized by panic. We went inside and closed our doors.

All afternoon we sat by the living room window looking out through the lace curtains. I don’t know what we expected to see out there in that dazzling heat on the dusty street—maybe nothing. Around sunset, when the sky turned a hazy purple and orange, a pickup truck drove through the streets. A sheriff’s deputy stood in the back and announced through a megaphone that the danger was over. He didn’t say what happened to the sick dog, just that it was safe to go outside again.

That’s when we realized that our dog had not been locked in the house with us. She had, in fact, been out in those dangerous streets. We looked frantically around the house hoping she might have just holed up under the porch. No such luck. When she finally came home, it was plain to see that she had been in a fight. There was blood on her feet, and one ear was cut.

For what seemed a long time we all just sat quietly, looking at the dog. Then Dad gently picked her up and walked outside.

“You kids go to bed,” he said as we heard the car door slam. The light of a full moon was shining in my bedroom window by the time Dad returned. He and Mom talked quietly for a few minutes. Then they went to bed.

The next day, neighborhood kids were back outside as usual, riding bicycles, skating down the new patch of sidewalk in front of Mr. Berger’s house, and sitting on the curb under the elm tree on the corner. Yet in spite of the fact that there was only one week remaining of summer vacation before school started, no one had much enthusiasm for playing. Four of us had given up dogs the night before.

“Mom was pretty sure Skipper was in the shed the whole time,” one boy said in carefully measured words. “But we just didn’t know for sure. There’s no cure for it,” he added softly.

We all nodded our heads. Nobody said much after that. Later, when it was time for supper, we all went home.

Dog Days refers to the Dog Star Sirius. It never did have anything to do with dogs.

Except once.