Best Dog Ever
By David Daniel
For Bobby Harrison, 1948-1995
When I got out of the service I couldn’t find a job, so I went back to live at my parents’ house. I still had a little Army money, so I started hanging around with my friend Bobby. He had just mustered out of the Navy.
He’d been a Seabee and had spent the previous eighteen months constructing helicopter landing pads in the jungles of Viet Nam. Planes would spray an area with chemical defoliants, and when the dense undergrowth began to die back, which didn’t take long, Bobby and his crew would go in with machetes, hack out the rest, lay down grids of reinforcing wire, and pour concrete. Six or seven days a week he was at it in the tropical heat, so when he got out, he was fried. “Ain’t definitely gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more,” he’d say.
Bobby liked that movie with Barry Newman, Vanishing Point, so he spent his combat pay on a white Dodge Challenger R/T with a 4-speed pistol grip transmission. We’d get high and ride around in his car and tell war stories.
He used to call me “Dog,” which he’d picked up from the brothers in his unit in Nam, and I picked it up from him, and returned the favor. “This ain’t no bullshit, Dog,” one of us would say and laugh and begin to tell a story. I didn’t have the Nam piece like Bobby, but there was still plenty of wild-ass stuff to tell.
During that time, my mom suggested I get a pet. There was an English Setter at the animal shelter where she volunteered that she thought I might like. The dog and I clicked right away. I named her Tess. She was shy and standoffish with most people, but she loved to ride around with Bobby and me in Bobby’s car. With the windows open, her head poked out right behind mine, brown ears flapping, she was a happy pooch. Happier, in her way, than either Bobby or I. In the lull of post-service, living at home and no jobs, a kind of melancholy had settled on us. Glumly puttering through our days, we were in a realm where soldiers, and civilians too, could claim no virtue over the war still going on. A war to keep dominoes from toppling? Few rational people still believed that. So, what then? War against what? Against whom?
Not that Bobby and I voiced this. We talked around it, but not of it. The world was too much with us, and we were possessed of some need to bust out of the sadness—with excitement, with adventure, with driving around in Bobby’s car, Tess along for the ride. I think she disapproved of our getting stoned; it was in her face, her alert expressive eyes, which seemed to say: I’m not judging, but who needs it? Look what’s out there!
Sometimes we’d drive to the beach. Tess loved it there. She was a flat-out racer, chasing bird shadows across the sand. Which I guess is what Bobby and I were doing too, believing somehow that we were out of the rip currents of the war.
One day we were in Harvard Square, stalled in afternoon traffic, high as usual. With her eager Setter’s eyes Tess was observing the world. Something beyond the iron gates of the college seized her attention. Without an instant’s hesitation she leapt out the open window, loped across four lanes of Cambridge traffic, and ran right into the green pulse of Harvard Yard, eager as a freshman going to her first class. There was nothing to do but go after her. Bobby lurched the car to the curb and we left it there, Marvin Gaye wailing on the tape deck.
Like interlopers we entered the Yard.
This was the world that had gone on in our absence: people strolling crisscrossing paths, others sitting on the grass, someone strumming a guitar. From occasional windows homemade peace banners hung. No sign of Tess. We split up, Bobby going one way, me another. But after long minutes of searching, we couldn’t find her. The worst of my paranoias and self-recriminations seized me. It was one more loss, and I wasn’t sure I could handle it.
Then I noticed a small group of people staring at something. I followed their gazes up an ivy-bearded wall, and there was Tess—one floor up, on a little Juliet balcony. Evidently, she’d run in the open door of one of the buildings and made her way upstairs and out onto the small iron-railed balcony: where she stood, oblivious to all below, in full pointing posture, staring up into a branching elm where she had treed a squirrel. She’d redeemed us. For the moment we weren’t failures.
We had beaucoup good times, Bobby and Tess and I, riding around in his car.
Years later I decided to tell this story at Bobby’s funeral. He’d reached the vanishing point. Cancer. One of the too many who’d succumbed after exposure to too much in an aimless war. I’m not sure it was the right story to tell, but it’s the one that came to mind.
“This ain’t no bullshit, Dog,” I began.