Blanche, foundation bitch for the Coastwind Afghan Hound kennel.
Fri, 12/15/2023 - 9:34pm

The Way We Were

As the year comes to a close, Richard Souza meanders down memory lane

All kennels have a history. Some are handed down generationally from a family’s long participation in purebred dogs and the world of dog shows. Most are less comprehensive and are built on the enthusiasm that begins and increases after the purchase of a purebred puppy — from a breeder, maybe from an ad in a newspaper, or, with today’s technology, from a posting on social media. The degree and nature of each involvement are broad. It could be a kennel of 50 runs with staff or a couple of X-pens and a pooper-scooper in the garage. A blank check or a paycheck. A “lifer” or a flash in the pan.

Our kennel, Mike Dunham’s and mine — "Coastwind” — came together in a different way and unlike any I know of. Not only different, but strangely different, with circumstances so riddled with ironic coincidence that, thinking back, it almost smacks of fiction. It would be hard to make up. In Babbie Tongren’s inimitable way with words, she once said of our humble beginning and fairly meteoric rise, “If you ain’t got Lady Luck on your side, you ain’t got nothin’.” It’s true.

It’s an interesting dog story, as dog stories go, no matter what breed or breeds you’re connected to. This one happens to have started with Afghans.

As I relate the details, you’ll notice that the focus is not so much about pedigrees and chronological breedings, “… and then we bred this dog to that bitch …” — although there will be some of that. And there won’t be a litany of statistics — top winners, major sires, number of champions, etc. You may, if I live long enough, read about that minutiae if and when I ever write “the book,” a saga far too lengthy for a magazine article. And probably a little tedious for readers not heavily invested in the breed.

The central character is as much San Francisco, the cultural and social environment we came from, and how the elements all suffused our dog experience. How the birth of Coastwind kennels was influenced, informed and embellished by the exigencies of time and place — specifically, San Francisco in the ’60s and the way we were. A little like opening a time capsule with a beginning about as unorthodox as it gets.



Tommy Vessu was a short, Humpty Dumpty-type lesbian, shy of five feet by an inch, maybe two. She was stereotypical of what you might conjure when imaging 1960-ish mannish lesbians, San Francisco variety — black jeans, a man’s shirt of some dark color, a bolo tie, a black leather vest, a large collection of important-looking keys hanging from a belt loop, a swagger inconsistent with her gender, if not her height, and a duck-tail haircut, also black. Her large-and-in-charge attitude landed her the management of the parking lot next to Finocchio’s in North Beach, which was an official stop on the Gray Line Nightclub Tour. A must-see tourist attraction. Packaged as a variety show in a dingy theater above Enrico Banducci’s famous Enrico’s Café on the Broadway strip, the show featured an impressive cast of female impersonators — Laverne Cummings, “Debutante of Song”; Jackie Phillips, “That Zany Redhead”; the “Two Old Bags from Oakland,” and colorful others, each in turn individually introduced with great fanfare — “… And let’s have a great big hand of applause for …” — by Lucien, “The Male Sophie Tucker.” The show was deliciously glossy in a low-budget kind of way, intriguing because of the costumes — elaborate, multi-layered, sequined outfits made entirely of Dennison’s Crepe Paper. That in itself was worth the price of admission: $5 plus an obligatory purchase of two cocktails at $1.25 each. Pricey, then. I can’t remember how many out-of-town friends I took to see the show. But it was a lot.




If this seems like an implausible way to begin the history of a kennel, you will find it less so when you learn that here in this vibrant North Beach neighborhood, having escaped from Tommy Vessu’s apartment as he routinely did, the Afghan Hound Akaba’s Allah Kazam was found one day by Mike Dunham as he, the dog, was running free and loose on Grant Avenue.  When on this first occasion (it would happen many times) Mike opened the door of his black Volkswagen Beetle and called the dog’s name, Allah came running and jumped into the car, tail wagging. It always was. How did the dog know Mike and vice versa? Ironically, Mike and his own two Afghans, along with other roommates, shared the same apartment building with Allah and his owner, Tommy Vessu.

Allah Kazam would become the foundation sire for the kennel we would call “Coastwind.” His routine rescues by Mike from the street were the first of several bizarre, even extraordinary, circumstances that led to opening the door of our 50-year-plus, 13-generation-plus, linebred family of dogs from which many in the fancy would draw. Had Allah literally not leapt into the picture, perhaps there would not have been a Coastwind at all. Certainly, the resulting pedigrees would not have been what they were.

The apartment building where Tommy, Allah, Mike and his group of young San Diego expatriates lived was on Romolo, the steep, narrow side street on the west side of the parking lot Tommy managed. Mike was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. The others in the apartment all were hopeful students from San Diego, all with artistic interests. The two Afghan Hounds — both owned by Mike — were Dea Zenga Coast Wind (from which the name “Coastwind” would morph) from the well-established Tichenor’s kennel in the East Bay, and Akaba’s Alice, who Mike had impulsively purchased, with papers, from a San Francisco pet store on Fillmore Street, Barry for Pets. Janet Barry, the owner, was another San Francisco lesbian who, in one more touch of circumstance, was one of six degrees of separation that had introduced me to the breed some years earlier.

More on that.

In his usual comings and goings, Mike became passingly friendly with Tommy and the outgoing, friendly red brindle Afghan. Mike’s continued “rescue” of Allah from the streets became a routine. A non-event. The dog was a consummate escape artist, and North Beach happened to be his chosen playground. Tommy, who was appreciative but pragmatic about the dog’s returns, offered, with no suggestion that she might somehow have been at fault, that Allah had always been difficult to contain — a reality that would lead to his early death. 

With Tommy’s permission, Mike began taking Allah to training class along with Windy and Alice, until one day he, Allah, disappeared. Tommy had moved out of the apartment building and left no forwarding address.

During this time through mutual friends, all of whom were aspiring artists (young and unrealistic, we all thought ourselves artists of one kind or another), Mike and I met. Getting to know his two Afghans and Allah Kazam had re-ignited my desire to own one, a promise that I had made to myself when I was about 16 years old. How? And where? At a brunch in San Francisco hosted by Janet Barry (Barry for Pets) and her lesbian lover, Muriel, who was the aunt of the high school girl I was dating at the time — the 1950s. Six degrees of separation, does, in fact, exist.

Being the sophisticated 16-year-olds my date and I thought ourselves to be, we sat in Janet and Muriel’s urbane living room, sippy whiskey sours, a cocktail very de rigueur then. A knock on the door resulted in the entrance of a glamorous model-type young woman. And on a leash was an equally glamorous model-type dog. An Afghan Hound. Instantly besotted, silently I said to myself, “Someday I’m going to have one of those.” The dog. Not the model.

Fast forward to San Francisco and the ’60s … I lived in another part of town toward the ocean—the “avenues” — a residential neighborhood, not nearly as colorful as North Beach, going to daily ballet classes and rehearsals and struggling with the reality that I had started too late in life to be the dancer I’d imagined. A career on stage was not in the cards — not if I wanted any kind of security once my last grand jeté had jetéd off the stage. I would soon find myself emersed in a different kind of show business — dog shows — non-vocational. A hobby that would get out of hand. There were similarities — vicarious, yes — the entrances, the exits, the performance, the exhibitionism, the applause. And, of course, the critics. As the memory of Nureyev’s arm on my shoulder faded and the aspirations of a life in the theater receded, breeding and showing dogs found their way into my life. With Mike’s encouragement and help, I bought my first Afghan, a bitch, Shaadar’s Blajnhe of Karlyle, who would become the dam of our first litter.

“Blanche” came from one of the pioneer breeders in the Bay Area, Mary Smithburn, who had advertised the litter in the San Francisco Chronicle — an acceptable way to sell puppies at the time. Blanche’s “face” had caught my eye as she scrambled around in the X-pen with her littermates (six or seven, I think there were, all black-masked creams). Mary had a grand manner — much like Martita Hunt in Great Expectations, even resembling her a little. I leaned over the pen and said, “Let me see that one,” pointing to Blanche. “Ooh, smell her muzzle,” Mary cooed, cuddling the 10-week-old puppy lovingly into the crook of her neck. She sniffed the black muzzle of the pup, grinned her mischievous Cheshire Cat grin, and handed her to me, saying, “She’s perfumed.” I was sold. A beautiful face and smelled good, too. 

When the litter was 12 weeks old, I took her home to a large, ground-floor, typical San Francisco upstairs/downstairs duplex near Golden Gate Park with two bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen and bath, back porch, two-car tandem garage and fully fenced back yard — $285 a month. Hard to believe. The same place rents these days for $4,000 to $5,000 a month!

So. More of North Beach, the city and the rest of the world. As noted, Tommy Vessu parked cars in the lot adjacent to Enrico’s Café. Enrico’s was a popular gathering place, often for Hollywood royalty — Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Paul Newman, his wife, Joanne Woodward and many other stars could be seen there off and on. Banducci’s other North Beach enterprise, the hungry i (note to SpellCheck: the lower-case “i” was on purpose) was the most influential showroom in American cabaret history, with performers like Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, the Kingston Trio, Mike Nichols and Elaine May appearing regularly. A very young Barbra Streisand auditioned there. Once. “Kid, you’ll never make it,” Banducci said to her. Her response as she left: “In one year I’ll be too big for you!” Being Barbra Streisand, she was.

Beyond North Beach and the Haight-Ashbury and our compact world of esthetic hopefuls, big things were always in the news. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton dazzled the movie screen in “Cleopatra,” a big-budget box-office flop that was overshadowed by the private lives of the stars, whose infidelity was more dazzling off screen than on. People couldn’t get enough of the unyielding tabloid fodder. Steve McQueen almost made it to freedom in the “Great Escape.”  And “To Kill a Mockingbird” became an instant film classic based on the novel of the same name. The Cold War was a constant in the headlines, South Vietnam continued its slide into chaos, and the struggle for civil rights grew stronger and ever persistent. Rudolph Nureyev had defected from the Bolshoi Ballet into the arms of Margot Fonteyn and England’s Royal Ballet.  (When I referred to Nureyev’s arm on my shoulder … it was during this period I had what Andy Warhol claimed everyone would have — 15 minutes of fame. On the stage of a packed house at the Hollywood Bowl Theater in Los Angeles, Nureyev’s lips close to my ear — me, a lowly hunter in the forest scene from Swan Lake — gazing up at a star-filled, black sky that surmounted an open-air audience, whispered in his thick Russian accent, “Isn’t it fantastic!” That was my 15 minutes.) And in these years my love affair with Erik Satie and his Trois Gymnopedies started. 

The sexual revolution was in full swing, and San Francisco’s North Beach was THE happening place. Carol Doda, a stripper at the Condor Club, made international news by being the first mainstream entertainer to dance topless. Before the ink was dry on the newsprint announcing the event, she embellished two of her attributes with silicone. (Silicone: the second most abundant element in the earth's crust, formerly used in the manufacture of computer chips, glass and aluminum, and as a hardening agent in clay pots, bricks and decorative tile.) Carol used it in the new revolutionary application — by injection into her breasts, 44 injections to be exact — which increased her measurements from 34 to 44 inches, elevating them to new heights. (Or would that be widths? Lengths?) They were ever after referred to as “the new Twin Peaks of San Francisco.”


Above: Carol Doda. Below: The Gold Spike restaurant sign.


The City Lights Book Store had become famous for the obscenity trial that had followed the publishing of Allen Ginsberg’s influential “Howl and Other Poems,” while the Beat generation found like-minded souls to hang with at Café Trieste, a popular coffeehouse. And a six-course family-style meal — antipasto, soup, salad, pasta, entree, dessert — was $4.95 at the Gold Spike Restaurant on Columbus Avenue. We ate there a lot.

The Afghan world was on the cusp of the biggest population explosion it had ever experienced, with entry levels at shows reaching a peak never to be equaled. The breed was entering the Golden Age of Afghans as the rest of the world entered the Age of Aquarius. The hippie community embraced Afghans as family pets and companions. Relating to what they saw as an other-worldly quality in these strange and exotic animals, hippies called them “spirit dogs.” It was not unusual to see an Afghan at a “love-in” or walking the sidewalks of the Haight-Ashbury with tie-dyed attire holding the leash. Volkswagen vans painted in all manner of psychedelia were not uncommon.

Push-button phones were introduced, first-class postage was 5 cents, and the population of the world was 3.2 billion, less than half of what it is today. All of this paled with the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Life went on under the weight of the nation’s grief. The dog world went on as well.

Mike and I, Blanche and Windy were entering dog shows on a regular basis, outfitted with two pin brushes and a folding card table to groom on. My earliest memory as an exhibitor: showing Blanche in a puppy class under Kay Finch at the Northern California specialty. Our first blue ribbon. In her critique, Kay said, “… typey black-masked cream; gorgeous head and eye. Handler too green to burn.”

We studied. We studied the entries. We studied pedigrees. We studied what well-known breeders everywhere were doing. There were endless debates (with ourselves and with others) about the differences we saw in the ring and how they related to, or veered from, the written standard as we understood it. We knew what we liked, but what was that exactly? The memory of Allah Kazam was always in there somewhere. He was a hard dog to forget.


Ch. Sahadi Shikari.


We had been following the pedigrees of Lois Boardman, whose Akaba dogs were cutting a wide swath in the dog world. Watching her in the ring and how she bred led to the first of several “aha” moments. Seeing the Shirkhan son Ch. Sahadi Shikari in the flesh was another. Zeroing in on Ch. Shirkhan of Grandeur as a common denominator was another. The dots of where we would be going and why started connecting themselves. Lois’ Best in Show Shirkhan son Ch. Akaba’s Top Brass was still being shown. He had won the national specialty in 1962 (then held at the Statler Hilton Hotel in New York). Two days later he won the Hound Group at Westminster. The next young Akaba dogs were starting what would become stunning careers — littermates Ch. Akaba’s Sterling Silver and Ch. Akaba’s Blue Devil, whose pedigrees doubled on the great Shirkhan, Sunny Shay’s very famous 1957 Westminster Best in Show winner. Following in Top Brass’ footsteps, in 1966 Sterling Silver won the national (at the same hotel). Blue Devil won the Hound Group at the Garden two days after that. The irony here is that Allah Kazam was their full litter brother. And as good — even better in some ways — as the sibling males.


Blue Devil (above) and Sterling Silver (below).


We did a lot of “paper” breeding then — writing comprehensive pedigrees out in longhand (a disappearing practice, I believe) to see what two or three or four successive generations would look like. (“What if we did this? Or this?”) One of our earliest plans: Breed Allah to both Blanche and Windy after they had finished. And then cross the results, intensifying the Grandeur part of the pedigrees. But Allah had disappeared, and we had no idea where he might be or how to find him. Option two: Use Silver and/or Devil.

Several months went by when an ad appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle: “For sale, male Afghan Hound, red brindle, about two years old.” It was from a boarding kennel in the East Bay — Walnut Creek. By now we had become intense, almost feverish, about the breed. At every opportunity we tried to meet the many pioneer breeders still around and active. We listened and questioned, eager to absorb what we could. (There were a lot of stories and lots of differences — and personalities — to sort through.) Kay Finch, Babbie Tongren, Mary Stephenson, Reigh and Dewey Abrams, Sunny Shay, Marion Florsheim — all available if you made the effort. The Golden Age in that respect as well.

We followed the progress of litters everywhere — who they were sired by, who the dam was, how many in the litter, what colors, what sexes, to what homes they went, who was shown and what they produced. It was highly unlikely that any of the brindle males of that color and age would have been for sale in a San Francisco newspaper ad. We had a hunch it was Allah, hopped into the VW Bug and drove straight to the kennel. The dog was brought out, tail wagging. It was Allah Kazam.

The manager explained that the dog had been boarded for several months and abandoned. There was no information as to the whereabouts of the owner. Tommy had mailed the registration papers to the kennel — unsigned — presumably a forfeiture in lieu of the bill. We paid the kennel bill, Allah leapt into the familiar back seat, and we left, papers in hand. With no official registration, the future was clear. No showing possible. No breeding possible. We had a marvelous, happy pet in the back seat.

We went back and forth with AKC for months — letters of explanation, affidavits from Lois verifying the dog’s identity, photos, supporting evidence by the kennel owner, etc. Seemingly endless correspondence. Then AKC, in an omnipotent gesture of who knows what, registered the dog. Allah was ours.

The story ends — and begins — with the greatest irony of all. I give you a skeleton of the details: Mike and I relocated to Northern California. Blanche came in season. As is normal, she was kept separate and away from Allah. On about the 20th day, no signs of her season were detectable. She was examined, bathed and put back in the yard running with the others. We monitored them for a while. Allah ignored her. We went about our business, heard a “yip,” and looked into the yard. They were tied.

How to describe the feeling at that moment? I won’t even try. We were still showing Blanche and were prepared to leave two days later with her and Windy for the Golden Gate Kennel Club two-day benched show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Clearly unsettled, we went to the shows anyway, leaving Allah and Alice in the hands of my willing and able parents. Early Monday morning after the shows and as we were leaving the city, a phone call. It was my mother. “I’ve got some bad news. Allah dug out of the yard. He was hit and killed on the highway. It was a school bus.”

A tragic ending. And a prophetic beginning. Blanche had three pups in that litter. One of them, a black-masked red male and our first champion, Coastwind Gazebo, became the top Afghan and second top Hound in the country in 1969. His career was jump-started with a Best in Show at the Beverly Hills Kennel Club under Derek Rayne (who would also put one of Gazebo’s descendants, Ch. Kabik’s the Front Runner, Best in Show at Westminster). Gazebo’s win was followed by Best in Show at the national — still at the Statler Hilton — the next weekend. He was the winner of 14 All-breed Bests in Show, 50 groups and a number of important specialties. He became an official top producer. His sister, Ch. Coastwind Serendipity, also became a top producer. The third littermate, a male, we placed with a friend. The dog disappeared. Stolen from his yard. Blanche finished her title. Gazebo and Serendipity became the cornerstones of our breeding program.

Had that planned, but accidentally premature, breeding not happened as it did? Clearly, no Gazebo. No Serendipity. Ouija? Nepenthe? Holy Man? Hermit? Abraxas? Phobos? Peony? Amid? Obsidian? Jacaranda? Blue Hen? Antiope? Sea Holly? Etc. Etc. Etc. Questions without answers. But the way we were became the way we would be.



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