By Andrew Thompson
Throughout his lifetime, Atticus Hogan has served in quite an impressive list of capacities.
Over the years, he’s been a representative of several veterans’ groups, an ambassador for a variety of well-known organizations, the featured guest at numerous parades and conventions, an Elks Lodge member, a calendar model, an honorary Marine, the Grand Marshal of a special awards show recognizing heroes, and – of course – man’s best friend.
But in order to fully understand the story of this yellow Labrador retriever, it may be necessary to see Atticus through the eyes of Jim Hogan – eyes remarkable for the very attribute that gave Atticus his life’s mission: they can barely see.
Part I: A Good Sound
That wasn’t always the case.
Born in Wisconsin and raised in California from the age of 10, Jim Hogan enjoyed a normal childhood, except for two relatively minor conditions: he had some difficulty seeing at night, and he often struggled to hear. The latter problem was deemed serious enough to warrant Jim’s receiving special education at the Mary E. Bennett School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, but when Jim finished school, he was determined that he wouldn’t be defined by the limitation.
“After I graduated, I took my hearing aid off and still survived with everybody else – ‘cause no one really knew I had a hearing loss,” Jim says.
But Jim’s hearing difficulty had a tendency to follow him when he least desired. Shortly after high school, Jim was drafted by the Army during the Vietnam War, but his hearing loss made him ineligible. In an era in which many were looking for ways to avoid the military, Jim – for reasons he still finds difficult to put into words – was determined to serve.
A couple of years later, when Jim made the acquaintance of a Navy recruiter, he got his chance. The recruiter told Jim he could learn to pass the hearing test by watching those before him push the button as they heard the sounds.
“And I did,” Jim recalls. “And I got caught. So, they put me in a room by myself, and – I’ll be damned. I passed the test.”
Jim had almost made it to the end of boot camp before his disability caught up with him once again. It was then that a recruiter called him out for essentially giving the right answers to the wrong questions and sent him for additional testing. He failed.
While waiting for the bus back to boot camp after a visit to the medical office, where he learned that he would receive a medical discharge, Jim bummed change for a phone call and contacted his recruiter. When he explained the situation, Jim says, the man basically told him that it would be taken care of.
“Two weeks later I graduated and got orders to go overseas,” Jim says. He never learned what happened, and he never questioned it.
Once in Vietnam, Jim spent three years serving on a landing ship, as well as nine months aboard the historic aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Enterprise. Looking back on his time in the war, Jim finds it strange that his disabilities never raised any suspicions.
His lack of night vision in particular had led to a variety of complications, ranging from the humorous (he recalls being barked at for refusing to face officers he simply couldn’t find) to the serious (he would pass off the night-watch responsibility of tossing concussion grenades into the water because he couldn’t make out the edge of the boat; the action was intended to ward off any swimmers who might want to come aboard the craft and cut the sleeping soldiers’ throats).
Unfortunately, after the war, Jim found that being stateside presented challenges of its own. He
Atticus accompanies Jim on a cruise on the LA River
distinctly remembers flying into San Francisco Airport, where he says soldiers were spat upon and called “baby killers.”
“I wanted to get rid of my uniform,” he recalls, adding that he doesn’t think anyone he’s met who served in Vietnam has ever forgotten coming home.
But Jim’s war experiences followed him in other ways, too. In part, his decision to move to Santa Clarita from the San Fernando Valley was prompted by his inability to stand the noise of the L.A. Police Department helicopters that would regularly pass overhead.
“To me, when I hear a helicopter, there’s – there’s something going on,” Jim says. “There’s an incident.”
Jim counts among his greatest accomplishments his overcoming that response, a success proven once and for all one day when a helicopter at a Veterans Day parade roared overhead triumphantly.
“That sound did not bother me. I really thought it was gonna bother me…” Jim says. “But all the guys in the parade…you know…gave a big, ‘Yeah!’ And that was a good sound.”
Part II: That Quarter of Pie
Of course, not all of Jim’s life post-Vietnam was centered on overcoming past experiences. On the contrary, it was during that time that Jim’s life really began to move forward.
Soon after returning home, Jim met Pam, his brother’s wife’s sister, whom he would ultimately marry. By 1977, when Jim had managed to land a job working as a building inspector for the City of Los Angeles, the future must have seemed bright. But there were also bumps in the road.
Once, on the evening of a party, Pam chewed Jim out for his rudeness after he had refused to shake hands with nearly every person he had met. Jim didn’t understand.
“Honest, Babe, I didn’t pay attention – didn’t notice!” he remembers telling her.
It didn’t take them long to figure out that it was Jim’s lack of peripheral vision, not manners, that was causing his breach of etiquette. From then on, whenever they went to public events, Pam sent Jim signals while they held hands.
In 1983, a visit to the doctor confirmed that Jim had retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative eye disease linked with a gradual loss of vision throughout life. It wasn’t until 1999, however, that Jim learned he had a particular condition called Usher Syndrome Type II. Another visit to the doctor that year informed him that, with his field of vision at only 10 degrees, he was already legally blind.
Jim remembers receiving the letter that made it official. “What do I do with this?” he asked the doctor. The answer he received, he claims, was something along the lines of “Do whatever blind people do.”
“I thought that was a slap in the face!” Jim says today. And it helped launch him on a crusade to both improve and raise awareness about the services available to the blind and disabled. As a result, Jim is particularly passionate about helping his fellow veterans get assistance through the V.A., which he says is the best place for anyone who served, received an honorable discharge, and became legally blind to go for help. He also helped create and continues to serve on a special committee that meets at City Hall to improve public transportation for the disabled.
And while he’s happy with the impact he’s made so far, Jim still has some desires he says he’d like to see come to fruition.
“Never go after the whole pie,” he jokes, referring to his attempts to bring about positive changes. “You’re never gonna get it.”
But if you’re patient enough and nice enough, he adds, you might be able to get the pie one piece after another.
“I’ve still got that quarter of pie to go,” says Jim.
Part III: To Be a Dog
For all Jim’s work to help his fellow blind and disabled, it took him some time to make use of the resource that would have such a deep impact on his own life: a dog.
The tipping point finally came when Jim and Pam saw firsthand the advantages a friend’s service animal provided. Jim subsequently applied with Guide Dogs for the Blind, and, before he knew it, he was flying to Oakland to meet the canine companion that would help to shape his life.
He remembers the first time he met the yellow lab, part of a litter of “A” names being trained at the time. He was called Atticus. Jim says the number one question people ask him is whether he chose that name.
“No,” he jokes. “I would’ve named him ‘Atta Boy,’ not Atticus!”
Names aside, the pair bonded rapidly. Before Jim knew it, Atticus was helping him almost everywhere he went.
Jim says he truly realized how much he now relies on Atticus one day when he crossed a street without him. After arriving at the corner, Jim listened for the surge of cars that indicated to him he could cross.
“The light changed, I got the surge, and I said to my cane, ‘Forward,’” he recalls. “And I started [getting] across.’”
Jim made it to the other side of the street – not paying much attention, because he was trusting in the instincts of his absent companion – before he realized what he had done.
“He makes a big difference,” Jim now says, referring to the level of mobility facilitated by his four-legged friend.
Part of Atticus’s ability to contribute so significantly to Jim’s life comes down to his superior discipline, which Jim says is special even among service dogs. But Jim says there are also times when Atticus knows better than to do what he’s told. Once, Jim grew frustrated at Atticus for not leading him across a street and stepped forward on his own – right into a ditch.
There are also times when Atticus can be just plain stubborn – never when he’s called to duty, but sometimes when…well, duty calls.
Atticus has been trained to go on command, and his ability to withhold his urges has become legendary. Once, on a cruise, Atticus held his bladder and his bowels for 50 hours, after refusing to use the kitty litter the ship had provided him or even, at Jim’s command, to make “poop deck” a more literal term.
Jim says Atticus was the first one off the ship, found a nice patch of grass in front of some loading buses, and went so long that people stopped to watch. They didn’t stick around, he claims, when he pointed out that they were waiting for number two.
Atticus is undeniably important in Jim’s everyday life, and – like many dogs – has quirks that can occasionally entertain a crowd. But perhaps most notable is the way Atticus has become a symbol, of sorts. Jim calls Atticus an ambassador for service dogs everywhere, a title perhaps solidified by Atticus’s recent selection as Grand Marshal of the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards.
Atticus has been so talked about and generally beloved over the years, in fact, that Jim has occasionally found himself standing in Atticus’s shadow. Once, while riding in a Fourth of July parade shortly after the release of an article about the duo, Jim and Pam heard children saying, “Look! It’s Atticus! And the blind guy!”
With such a level of fame, lots of good food, a fulfilling purpose, and plenty of love, Atticus is living the good life.
“You know,” Jim jokes, “I’ve always said: if I’m gonna come back – if you believe in reincarnation – I want to be a dog!”
After all of their experiences together, Jim has come to recognize just how special a companion he’s been given.
“I’ve been blessed with a good dog,” he says. But no one is ready for the ten-and-a-half-year-old Atticus to retire just yet.
“I’m not ready to let him change his career. And he doesn’t want to,” notes Jim. “I just can’t get another dog and then say, ‘All right, you’re done.’”
So, if you happen to see Jim in the upcoming days, don’t be surprised if right by his side is his aging yellow lab with the loving spirit, the disciplined mind, and the puppy’s heart.
After all, neither Jim nor Atticus would have it any other way.