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Flying Dog

At twenty pounds, Air Major is a small dog. He is brown and has short hair and a nice wiggly tail. He barks at strangers before he warms up to them and licks their ankles. He is allowed to sleep on the couch, and even on his owner's bed at night, small courtesies befitting a dog famous enough to have appeared on David Letterman--twice!--and at halftime shows at a Suns game and a Cardinals game.

"I loved him way before he paid the rent," says Bill Watters.
Watters is standing in the yard outside his apartment near Turf Paradise, while the payer of rent examines a green plastic garbage sack, perhaps with an eye to a snack.

What Air Major does to be famous is slightly more than what Zsa Zsa Gabor does, but not as much as Dwight Gooden. He is more like Bo Jackson, actually, because what Air Major does is catch Frisbees and run with them.

At this moment, in the United States of America, tossing Frisbees to a dog is not only an organized sport, but a sport at which it is possible to make money. Air Major has sponsors. Although he is too small to wear articles of clothing emblazoned with the names of checkwriting companies, Bill Watters is not. And so when Bill Watters makes public appearances, he looks somewhat like tennis players at the U.S. Open, or racecars at the Daytona 500. He wears a tee shirt with the name of a dog food manufacturer. And a pair of shorts with the name of a clothing chain.

Air Major is the sixth-ranked Frisbee dog in the United States right now, a placement that hardly seems important enough to have propelled him into the national spotlight. Somewhere, probably lying on the living-room rug licking himself, is the number one Frisbee dog, who has yet to receive late-night air time. Air Major is on Letterman because Air Major is the property of a young man who knows how to hustle.

Watters is not the kind of dog owner who bores friends with stories about his singular animal. Most of his stories, in fact, tend to be about himself. Nor is Watters the sort of owner who burdens his dog with pats and caresses. He can ignore Air Major quite remarkably well.

No, the bond between Air Major and Watters is not exactly a sentimental one. Air Major might very well feel the kind of undying devotion depicted in Sir Edwin Landseer's dog paintings, those syrupy nineteenth-century English canvases of animals mooning disconsolately upon the coffins of their departed masters. But Watters appears to see the link between man and beast as another kind entirely, one also summed up in the nineteenth century, by the economist Thomas Carlyle with the term "cash nexus."

Air Major is not exactly a cash cow, mostly because he is too small, but Watters certainly sees him as a business partner. Nay, more. Watters sees his dog as the star he will create, and on whose coattails he will ride to his deserved glory.

"Air Major has the potential to be a national cultural icon," Watters says. The potential icon, meanwhile, rushes over to watch a woman get out of her car, possibly to see if her exit might afford an opportunity for barking.

Watters has two walls of his apartment covered with pictures of Air Major winning Frisbee events, as well as Frisbees from those events. In the living-room closet are 500 or so Frisbees, for practice.

Apart from the 500 Frisbees, Watters' place looks like the apartment of any 31-year-old man who spent a few years in the Navy, went to college after that, moved to Phoenix to work for his brother-in-law's tee-shirt company and who now lives alone with his dog. It is not so much decorated as stocked. There's a big color TV with a well-used channel flipper and shelves of stereo equipment. There's a couch made to be flopped on and a coffee table that invites feet. In permanent encampment in the middle of the living room are rolls of Astroturf, for Air Major's public appearances at places not equipped with grass.

Watters acquired his dog as a puppy four years ago. At first he was simply "Major." "Air" was added after the college paper for which Watters was a photographer dispatched him to cover the U.S. Open Flying Disc Championships at La Mirada, California, and Watters discovered the talent that led David Letterman to label the creature "Flying Dog." It may be possible that Frisbee championships take place elsewhere in the United States, but such events seem uniquely suited to Southern California, which has given birth to active subcultures centered on all sorts of utterly useless activities, like cruising up and down the street in cars, or standing up on waves on pieces of wood.

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Anna Dooling