(Mike Royko is on vacation until Jan. 30. While he's away, we're reprinting some of his favorite columns. This column first appeared Feb. 8, 1980.)
PEOPLE WHO HAVEN'T been in Big Wally's Tavern for a while will order their beer, then look around and ask where Freddie the Freeloader is.
Wally Tibor or his wife, Evelyn, will shake their heads as they break the sad news.
"Freddie has passed on."
"No kidding. What from?"
"He just got old, I guess."
They they will talk about what a heroic creature Freddie the Freeloader was. And about the cold night he saved Old Jake's life.
And Evelyn or Wally will say: "I never had a better dog. No tavern had a better dog."
That is a strong statement, since tavern dogs are probably the bravest, most useful of all dogs.
Some of them have become legends, such as Bruno, a Milwaukee Avenue tavern beast. He was a cross between a Doberman and a chow, and he had red eyes and a green tongue. One night a robber came in and with one bite Bruno performed a rather crude but effective vasectomy on the felon.
Then there was Duke of Armitage Avenue, a huge, mean, mixed breed that had lost one ear in a fight with a dozen cats. It was said that if Duke even licked your hand, you could die of blood poisoning.
Duke was unusual in that he didn't like to bark. So a teen-age burglar who broke in one night thought he had clear sailing. He was emptying the cash register when Duke put his paws up on the bar, stared into the kid's eyes, and made growling, slobbering sounds.
When the owner showed up in the morning, he found Duke still growling and slobbering, and the teen-age burglar still standing with his hand in the register. The owner swears that the kid's hair had turned pure white.
But as noble as these dogs were, Freddie the Freeloader was something special.
Freddie was born to be a tavern dog. He just wandered in off the street one day and made himself at home, mooching potato chips, boiled eggs and hunks of barroom pepperoni. That's how he got his name.
He could do everything expected of a good tavern dog, never biting a regular customer, sniffing suspiciously at strangers or people who asked for credit, breaking up fights by biting all brawlers equally, and growling at wives who came looking for their husbands.
He could do it all -- plus something I've never heard of any other tavern dog doing.
At night he would walk customers home from the tavern at 2259 North Greenview. Nobody trained him to do it. He just seemed to know that a dog is a drunk's best friend.
A regular named Leo was the first to notice it. One night Leo told Evelyn: "You know, when I leave here, that son-of-a-gun always walks me to my door."
It became kind of a joke. Evelyn or Leo would tell people: "Don't worry about getting rolled on the way home. Freddie will get you there."
And he did. The regulars would leave one at a time -- Leo, then Shorty and Teddie and Donnie and Marty.
They would stagger down the street with Freddie at their sides. As soon as one of them lurched safely into his house, Freddie would trot back to the bar for another.
Evelyn recalled: "Sometimes one of them would be leaving, and I'd say: 'Wait, Freddie's not back yet from taking Tony home.' So they'd have another drink and wait for Freddie."
After a while, Freddie knew where most of the regulars lived, which is more than some of the regulars knew at 2 a.m. So all they had to do was follow him and he'd get them there.
Nobody kept track of how many times Freddie got people safely home. Hundreds, even thousands. And not one of them was mugged or pinched for vagrancy.
Think about that. A Saint Bernard named Barry is in history books because he rescued 40 people during a blizzard in Switzerland in 1800. Freddie provided safe escort for that many people on any busy Saturday night.
Then there was the incident with Old Jake. Even now, when somebody mentions it, everybody at the bar drinks a silent toast to Freddie.
It was late one night during a terrible winter blizzard. Old Jake had been drinking boilermakers to brace himself for the long walk home. By midnight, he had braced himself enough to walk to Alaska.
"When Jake got up to leave, I told Freddie to go with him," Evelyn said. And off they went into the fierce cold and deep snow.
About 10 minutes later, Freddie returned. But instead of mooching a piece of pepperoni, he stood near the door and barked.
"Lay down," Evelyn said. But Freddie kept barking and barking.
"I said: 'I wonder what's wrong with that crazy dog,'" recalled Evelyn.
Somebody opened the door and Freddie went outside. But he just stood there barking. So a couple of the regulars went outside to see why he was acting that way.
Freddie ran down the street and they followed him. He turned at the next corner, then stopped and stood wagging his tail.
There, lying in a snowbank, almost covered with new snow, was Old Jake.
He had passed out. And if Freddie hadn't brought help, Jake might not have been found until the spring thaw.
"Freddie saved his life for sure," said Evelyn. When he sobered up, Jake even came back and thanked Freddie. Gave him a whole bag of chips.
"I swear if I could afford it I'd have a statue made of that dog."
There have been statues made of devoted dogs. So if some sculptor out there wants to make one, Evelyn and Wally would be glad to put it in a place of honor. Maybe next to the cash register.
It wouldn't have to be big or even artistic. Just the prone figure of a man -- with a pint bottle in his hand. And standing over him in a noble pose, a mixed-breed mutt.
But don't put a brandy keg under Freddie's chin. That's for Saint Bernards.
For Freddie, maybe just a piece of pepperoni sticking out of his mouth.