Doug Cabral publishes first book, with help from his canine sidekicks

Doug and Molly Cabral, just prior to Doug's retirement from the MVTimes in 2014. —Ralph Stewart

When Doug Cabral first set out to produce a book a couple of years ago, he planned to publish a collection of the columns he’d written about dogs, roughly 15 percent of the several thousand articles, editorials, and columns he’d written over decades of newspapering on Martha’s Vineyard. He had learned early on that “dog columns” appealed to almost everyone, especially on the Island.

A lukewarm reaction to the idea from publishing professionals persuaded him to switch gears, but not the vehicle — dogs. So instead of a collection of already published material, the reader is treated to a richer, fuller offering, with a nuanced picture of the author, the world he has watched go by, and the people and events he cares about.

The result is “News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard.” Given the prominence of canine companions in the book, it might have been subtitled, “An Intentional Life with Dogs on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Growing up on the north side of Buzzards Bay, Doug ended up on the south side of Vineyard Sound, less than 20 miles distant but worlds apart, measured metaphorically. He had set out, back on the continent, to become a professor of literature before hearing the Vineyard’s siren call. It was the romance of sailing aboard Shenandoah under Bob Douglas that washed him up on the shingle in Vineyard Haven. Like many Islanders, he would find work where he could during the offseason, until he wrote a story for the Vineyard Gazette about dogs on sailboats — two of his enduring channel markers — that featured his first dog, Pasha, a large male German shepherd. Soon enough a wily Scotsman, James Reston, conned him into full-time, indoor, desk-bound work at the paper. “Pasha,” Doug writes, “who always had a plan when I did not, had put me in the newspaper game, although I thought for years that it was serendipitous.”

Pasha was the first in a line of canines to which Doug attributes fantastical powers of influence over his life. All animal lovers anthropomorphize to a level that others find silly and/or obnoxious, but Doug takes it to another level.

Take Radnor, a Rhodesian ridgeback who never saw a door he didn’t like to destroy, and “who had withheld his affection from so many [before bestowing] it quietly upon my father during the last days of his life.” Or Ping, a sometimes snooty pug who “… heard people talk about what the Vineyard was like years ago, so he thought he knew. I was convinced he was talking through his hat, but I humored him.” Another pug, Teddy, “suspects the summer dogs of his acquaintance attend Fashion Week in New York with their people, lunch out nearly every day, always walk on a leash, and are groomed weekly.”  

But looming over the host is Diesel, 185 pounds of lumbering, slobbering English mastiff who, despite breath “…like the exhalation from an ancient tomb, opened after centuries … knew so much about the way man and dog complimented one another, and because he insisted on that partnership, I gradually understood that he and I were in love and alike in more ways than I had … ever imagined.”

If Doug gets a bit hyperbolic in his anthropomorphism, he’s sticking with it. In his words: “Listening to and watching [the dogs] over so many years and then reviewing their stories, I learned something about myself and something more about Martha’s Vineyard — lessons I had missed. And I discovered that there were motifs that I had not recognized as my life careered along, but that had spun the wheel and shaped the course I’d taken.” An edgy male terrier might bare his teeth if he thinks he’s being called a motif, but Doug’s no stranger to fierce reactions to proclamations he’s made from the editor’s perch.

Doug has kept a keen eye on the Vineyard for a long time, and he provides a picture of a changing, complicated, beloved community, one that we all consider special, though my Vineyard may be a long way from yours. Some local issues interest him more than others, and some individuals are more appealing than others, but it’s the whole that makes the place interesting to Doug. Or as he put it, “A single-minded way of looking at the world becomes a distortion.”

When you are tied to a desk and a relentless schedule, you don’t have the freedom to wander much, and less so when your task is to reflect and inform a citizenry that, just by its presence in this playpen/paradise, believes it is entitled — at times even obligated — to weigh in on any and every aspect of living here, along with many aspects of living everywhere else.

Along with the myriad mundane events that occupy us round the clock, round the year, Doug also digs into subjects that interest him — colonial history, coastal navigation, dairy farming. The story he tells is his story, finally, and it reads as if he has enjoyed telling it — not surprising, perhaps, since he’s no longer constrained by the need to tread a narrow, fraught-filled path between balance and partisanship. It’s as if he’s been able to peel away a layer or two of the Tuf-Skin he’s had to apply over the years, finally allowing himself to ramble back through his life. The result is a lively, humorous sketch of an intriguing whole, a collection of the disparate, surprising parts that make all of us interesting, not just to the world around us but also to ourselves, if we are lucky.

Neither a tell-all nor a manual, “News Hounds” is one voice among many. With no pretense of omniscience, the author recognizes that finding the truth about a small community is a collective undertaking, and he’s just pulling his own weight. After all, if we were all on the same page all the time, what would we have to talk, complain, argue about?

And then there’s the writing, which is always well-crafted, and sometimes timeless. For example, “I especially enjoyed evening chores, which in the winter occurred after dark. I often took my oldest daughter then five or six years old, now a mother of two, along to do evening chores. I wanted her to feel the thrilling enormity of the night and the wildness of the wind on our hilltop Island farm. She sat in my lap as I drove the loader into the open end of the concrete silo, which was filled with the chopped corn silage we had put up in the fall. It was warm, brown, sweet, and tangy. The moist, steamy fragrance that rose from it appealed to me as it did to the cows. As we chugged back and forth from silo to feed trough, the sky glittered coldly above us. Every impossibly distant constellation descended as she pressed her curly head back against me.”

That’s a lovely passage, to my ear, and one with nary a whiff of a dog.

Whit Griswold has known Doug Cabral since the early 1970s, and he worked for him at the MV Times from 2003 to 2014.