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 such as him, 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 it. 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 once again caught up with him. 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.
Jim distinctly recalls sitting in the office of the chief medical officer, resisting the medical discharge that he knew was inevitable. “I remember very well,” Jim says, “he got up from the chair, gave me a dirty look, opened the door, and he said, ‘See all these guys sittin’ in these chairs? They’re [fools], because they want out. You’re more of a fool – you wanna stay in!’”
While waiting for the bus back to the camp, 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. In 2001, when he received a copy of his medical records, he discovered that they said he was “unfit for military duty,” an assessment complemented by official stamp.
Nevertheless, Jim somehow managed to make it to Vietnam, where he spent three years serving on a landing ship that conducted a variety of missions, from transporting cargo and Marines to river patrol. Though he didn’t ask too many questions, Jim says he and his crewmates sometimes suspected that their missions were top secret.
“You knew you were doing something, because generally, two weeks before the operation, no mail comes in and no mail [goes] out,” Jim recalls.
Later, Jim completed a nine-month stint aboard the historic aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. Today, he notes the stark contrast between serving aboard the carrier with a crew of 5,000 and serving on the landing ship with a crew of only 40.
“I tend to like the smaller ship better because everybody’s very close,” Jim says. “Where, on the larger ship, I run into people that served on there that I never knew.”
Looking back on his time in Vietnam, Jim finds it strange that his disabilities never raised any suspicions. His lack of night vision in particular 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 small boat and cut the sleeping soldiers’ throats).
“That was the one thing I feared most,” Jim says. Unfortunately, as was the case for many veterans of the Vietnam War, Jim found that being back stateside presented challenges of its own. He 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 the time he overcame that response while a fire helicopter was repeatedly landing at a water tank near his home. “I put in my mind – I said, ‘You know what?That’s a good sound. That is a good sound,’” Jim recalls. “Because it’s – they’re here to put out the fire! And it’s [threatening] us!… [I] said, ‘That noise is not gonna bother me anymore.”’
The issue was settled once and for all on the day that a helicopter hired to fly over a Veterans’ Day parade roared by triumphantly. “That sound did not bother me. I really thought it was gonna bother me…” Jim says. “But all the guys in the parade – all the Vietnam guys in the parade – all… 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, and the two began to date. It wasn’t until she had all four wisdom teeth pulled and he went to her mother’s house to look after her, however, that things got serious.
“I went to the house [to] take care of her and never left,” says Jim. The couple was so inseparable that it seemed inevitable they would decide to tie the knot. “Everybody was shocked when we made a wedding announcement, because they thought we were married,” notes Jim.
By 1977, when Jim had managed to land a job working as a building inspector for the City of Los Angeles, he had in place both a solid career and a brand new family. 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, Jim and Pam held hands.
“She was always sending me signals,” says Jim, recalling how she would alert him to curbs, steps, and offers for handshakes.
But in 1983, when Jim’s vision had narrowed to the point that it was causing him even further trouble, a visit to the doctor confirmed that he had retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative eye disease linked with a gradual loss of vision throughout life. Jim discovered that he was going to continue losing his eyesight, and that what he had already lost already couldn’t be recovered. Beyond that, however, Jim didn’t understand much more.
Jim continued to work, making up for his difficulties as he always had: with hard work and commitment. He was even transferred to code enforcement by a supervisor who needed someone reliable to do the job. When Jim told his supervisor that he was having vision problems, he was urged toward the task anyway, with the understanding that he would let the supervisor know if his vision continued to deteriorate. And so, Jim went to work.
Then, one morning in October of 1999, Jim left for a job in the rain and realized that he simply couldn’t see. He turned around and did something he almost never did in his decades-long career: he called in sick. The next day, he told the supervisor that he simply couldn’t do it anymore. He was transferred to a desk job in the legal department, where he would spend the rest of his career.
Around that time that, largely through his own research, Jim also began to learn more about his specific condition. It was called Usher Syndrome Type II, and it was a disease associated with both hearing loss and night blindness, generally followed by a gradual loss of vision. In 1999, another visit to the doctor informed Jim that, with his field of vision at only 10 degrees, he was already legally blind.
He 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 help improve and raise awareness about the services available to blind people – particularly other blind veterans. As a result, Jim is particularly passionate about helping his fellow veterans get assistance through the V.A.
“This is important to me,” he says, “very important: it does not make a difference if you have a service-connected [disability] or not; if you served, and you have an honorable discharge, and you become legally blind, the V.A. is the best place to go for [a] source of help.”
Jim, who hasn’t been able to drive since the late 1990s, has also worked with local transportation authorities to improve the access of the disabled to efficient public transportation. He helped create and continues to serve on a special committee that meets at City Hall to address a variety of transportation issues and, while he says he still has some desires he’d still like to see come to fruition, he also feels he’s managed to make a significant impact thus far.
“Never go after the whole pie,” he jokes, referring to his attempts to bring about positive changes in public transportation. “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 joined a blind friend and her guide dog on a cruise and saw firsthand the advantages the service animal could provide.
“I noticed, when we went out on the cruise ship, she’s gone. Speedy Gonzales. They’re gone. And I’m sittin’ here with my cane, ‘Doot, de doot, de doot, de doot, de doot…’” says Jim. “I thought, ‘Amazing how much independence you have, [with] where you want to go.’”
At long last, Jim’s mind was made up. His subsequent application was accepted by 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 still remembers sitting in his room, waiting for his animal to arrive after undergoing two full days of training to use the harness and learn the commands. At last the door opened, and in walked the yellow lab.
“Immediately,” Jim says, “he was just on cloud nine.”
The dog was a part of the litter of “A” names being trained at that time, and his name was 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 so quickly that, before they had even left the facility, compassion prompted Jim to break the rules by occasionally letting Atticus off of “tie-down” in his room.
“Sometimes the door would be left open and I would go down the hallway to get something, and here he comes,” Jim recalls.
Still, Jim and Pam learned to be unwavering in teaching their new family member control when he came home at last. In fact, Jim claims that their first month together instilled in Atticus a level of discipline exceptional even among other service dogs. Today, that discipline is perhaps best demonstrated, not only when Atticus is called to duty, but 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.
When the ship pulled into port, Jim explains, Atticus was the first one off. He found a large patch of grass and, ignoring the group of buses loading up just beside it, he went. And went. And went – so long that, as Jim tells it, he got something of a standing ovation.
“All right, that’s number one,” Jim says he had joked. “[We’re] waitin’ on number two!”
Jim says that got the spectators back on the bus quickly. Of course, there are also times when Atticus knows better than to do what he’s told.
“They are taught intelligent disobedience, and it has happened a couple of times,” Jim explains. Once, when returning from work, Jim grew frustrated with Atticus for refusing to walk him across the street after being given the command to do so. After repeating the command, to no avail, Jim stepped forward anyway – right into a ditch.
In a similar incident, Jim grew impatient waiting in the rain for Atticus to take him toward the light of their parked vehicle. After a moment, a bystander kindly informed Jim that he should perhaps have his dog take the ramp on the right, lest they step off a six-foot drop.
Jim was sure to give Atticus a cookie when they finally did make it to the car.
Jim says that he truly realized the difference Atticus makes on a day when Jim decided to leave without him for a day in town. During that journey, Jim’s cane struck a homeless man who told him, “I’m gonna shove that stick up your –”
Jim says he took off before the man could finish his sentence.
Later, Jim arrived at a corner and 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.
But perhaps of equal importance is the degree of communication that Atticus can inspire.
“I can stand on the corner with my white cane – it will be quite a while before someone comes up to talk to me,” Jim says. With Atticus, on the other hand, he’s lucky to get to 30 seconds.
Still, not everyone who approaches the duo is interested in connecting with the human. Once, on a cruise ship, Jim met some children who asked if they could pet Atticus because they missed their own dog. Jim asked Atticus if it was okay, and Atticus walked right over to the boys in order to bask in their affection.
“I know there are two things he loves: food and attention, in that order,” says Jim. Now he always lets people pet Atticus, provided that: they ask him first, it’s an appropriate time, and Atticus indicates that he’s comfortable.
Perhaps it’s his open, lovable disposition that has garnered Atticus all of those special memberships and appearances. Atticus, Jim says, is indeed an ambassador for working dogs everywhere, as evidenced by his recent selection as Grand Marshal of the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards. It’s recognition like that which has occasionally left even Jim 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, Jim thinks.
“You know,” he jokes, “I’ve always said: if I’m gonna come back – if you believe in reincarnation – I want to be a dog!”
These days, at the age of ten and a half, Atticus has probably put most of his working days behind him. Nevertheless, he’s enjoyed a career filled with experiences that have vastly ranged.
There were times when Atticus was required to work in overdrive, such as that trip through London when he had to learn that cars can come down the other side of the street. There were times when he had little to do but enjoy himself, such as those ski-trip moments when he was able to partake of his favorite pastime: frolicking in the snow.
After all of those 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 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.