In the latest edition of “Speak, Arkansas,” in which everyday Arkansans tell their stories in their own words, we hear from Daniel Lilly, a professional dog-walker and familiar presence in the River Market district. Find him at facebook.com/Corporal.K9.
I was born in Springfield, Ill., and went to 10 schools in 12 years before I graduated. I was not a military brat, we just moved around a lot. My mom was a computer programmer, and I had three step-fathers: Two of them worked for the post office and the middle one was just a pile of crap.
My first pet was a dachshund mutt named Frisky. And then she got a brother named Caesar, who was a full-bred dachshund. Caesar was this hyper, spastic dog, and Frisky would just look at him and roll her eyes, like, “Oh God, why am I stuck on this planet with this douchebag.” I was 8 or 9. It was before my parents got divorced, because we couldn’t afford pets after that.
I went to Walt Disney World after my first year of college and worked there for three years as a VIP tour guide. I speak 11 languages and am fluent in five. I took them all in school. Languages are just easy for me. Growing up the way that I did — we were poor. We were government-cheese, donated-food-from-the-church poor. And there was no way that somebody growing up the way I did was ever going to see a passport or a trip to Europe or anything like that. So learning languages was a way for me to travel vicariously.
After Disney World, Clinton had taken office and promised to lift the ban on gays in the military. That ban was the only reason I’d never joined to Marine Corps, something I’d always wanted to do, so I joined and shipped out the Parris Island, S.C., in 1993. Boot camp takes 13 weeks, but I developed tendinitis in my knees, so I ended up breaking the all-time record of a recruit at Parris Island and spent 319 days in boot camp there.
I was thinking I was going to have to manufacture fake girlfriends, but it wasn’t like that at all. And that was way back in ’95. Even then, in the testosterone-fueled Marine Corps, it was totally fine, until it became not fine. It became not fine one night when I had sex with two Marines in a hotel room off-base while two other Marines watched. The two Marines who watched were so “psychologically traumatized” that they turned us in the following Monday and all five of us got kicked out for homosexuality, which is what it says on my discharge papers. That was Super Bowl Sunday 1995.
I then got the opportunity to live rent-free with an openly gay neurosurgeon in some podunk backwater called North Little Rock, Arkansas. And that’s how I landed here. Two weeks after I landed in Arkansas, Southwest Airlines opened up a reservation call center at the airport. I walked in off the street, they loved my 11 languages and didn’t give a crap about the homosexuality thing, and so I got the job and was there for nine and a half years, until they closed the center.
Two weeks into the layoff, I’m sitting at home watching “Oprah,” and she says, “Well, if you’re making a change in your life — if you’ve been laid off or something — don’t just sit around watching daytime TV and eating bonbons.” I’m sitting there watching at 3:30 in the afternoon with a Whitman’s Chocolate Sampler on my lap and I say, “OK, Oprah. I get it. I’m listening.” She said to get a dog, get a hobby and get off your ass. And so I got a dog and started walking it through my neighborhood.
Now, nine years later, it’s been 246 dogs. I walk up to 11 at once, around the clock, 24 hours a day. I’ve been bitten before. Twice, dogs have gotten out of their collars and taken off running down the street. Once it was a Chow mix and the other time it was a Pomeranian named Satan. I chased them. We got both of them, thank God. Satan is the one I really remember.
I really get a kick out of overhearing people say, “Oh look, there’s the dog-walker.” I’ve overheard people saying, “I saw him walking 17 dogs, 23 dogs, 109 dogs,” and I’m not going to go out of my way to squelch those rumors. I’m just going to let the urban legend go forward.
I don’t know if Oprah saved my life, but I think the dogs did. But I’m sure glad I listened to Oprah.
— As told to Will Stephenson