Best Dog Ever

Johnston Gate, Harvard Yard

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.

David Daniel, a frequent contributor to this site, is a prolific novelist and writer, and a former high school teacher.


11 Responses to Best Dog Ever

  1. Walter James Provencher says:

    No bullshit! Glumly puttering thru our days….war still going on: that was the reality back in 1970,
    when we got out of the Army, back in the world, needing the likes of ….what, and then Tess, a dog,
    a naif setter, all go, and we go, together into trying to make some kind of future in a deeply broken world…I know Dave Daniel, I know Tess, I know all of this, and shed a little tear for us all….wonderful, old buddy, Nix-Nox and thanks for laying it down so true….

  2. Alexandra Daniel says:

    I remember the story of Tess jumping out the car window in Cambridge, but I never knew she made it up to someone’s balcony. I’m sure it was to the delight of many!

  3. Tim Trask says:

    By telling us of two old friends, you render powerfully a time fifty or so years ago when, for some of us, there was little vision of the future.

    Well done, Dave.

  4. william c. crawford says:

    Glad to say that those tempestuous times are behind us. Some delayed closure for a lot of us Nam vets. How many lives saved by the loyalty of canine companions!?
    Ain’t bullshitin’ here neither.

  5. Susan Allen Ford says:

    Beautiful story. There’s a world and a couple of lives in that short space. I’ve been musing on it all day. Thanks, Dave!

  6. James Byrd says:

    We come, we go, and we just kind of vanish in the great tapestry of history and all our stories become a few threads lost on a wall. Damn, Dave, you sure struck a nerve full of the aimlessness and longing for relevance that still haunts our memories.

    I can hear your voice… “Haavad Yahd..”.

    Great story, old friend.

  7. Steve O'Connor says:

    It was the right story to tell. Can’t say it any better than Walter and the others, but very moving.

  8. Amy says:

    What a great story–the voice, as others have pointed out–and the way it jags, so you don’t know what’s coming up, as the two in the story couldn’t know, or anyone else in that time or ever. Tess the dog is the perfect counterpoint, right up to her single-minded pursuit of a squirrel.

  9. Jerry Bisantz says:

    As usual, Dave, so much to say. You, Tess, and Bobby. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…” Great writing!!!

  10. carl winderl says:

    Wow. This piece definitely belongs in the “Best of the Best” in the Daniels ‘Anthology/Oeuvre.’ So, so much going on here as he nails the life and times of Dave & Friends. I was alive then too, and this piece with its details, setting, sounds, images lets me relive them, again. Of course, a 1st-class Daniels piece would not be complete without a car: and what a car with this one. (For those who’ve not seen ever or haven’t re-seen it lately: STOP, and stream “The Vanishing Point.” Then re-read this piece and savor the flavor of what Dave’s cooked up.) Not only the classic car to symbolize the time and era, but abundant are the allusions, to list only a few: Maggie’s Farm, dominoes toppling, the green pule (or was it the ‘fuse’?!), juliet balcony, again the movie itself, and of course — “The world was too much with us” — is somebody an English Professor here or what?! Also, the structure seals the deal: the narrative and the ‘voice’ spinning it, plus the wonderful ‘Book-Ends’: the Vanishing Point so begins it and ends it. So hugely symbolic. Truly, this ‘Best’ reveals a Master Storyteller at the Very Top of His Game. Play On. And again. As usual.