He’s grown on us, though. Me especially -- Diana was sold from the get-go. He’s smart, one might even say intuitive. He’s funny, and he makes us happy. But I am NOT one of those “dog people” who believe their dogs are the same as their children. He’s a great guy, a wonderful companion. But he’s just a dog.
But, dammit, this happened. It’s important to put the proper emphasis on the last two words of the previous sentence. It should not be “this happened.” It should be “this happened.” It did. I don’t know how or why because, after all, he’s just a dog.
And I’m just an old retired guy who sees his good friend a little differently now.
It was an advantage of retirement that, when Diana had to travel to Mobile, Ala., on business, Barkley and I were available to accompany her. He has become a good traveling companion. I like to think I am the same, plus I also serve as chief chauffeur on the long haul across the South on Interstate 10.
Diana was occupied with business one afternoon, so Barkley and I decided to load into the Explorer and do just that. We would scout Mobile for good restaurants, see some sights and be prepared with a nice dinner plan for Diana when she was finished working for the day.
There are good seafood restaurants to scout along Battleship Parkway, and checking them out for dinner possibilities was our main mission. The parkway is so named because it is the resting place of the Battleship Alabama. She is moored in Mobile Bay, adjacent to a large parade ground surrounded by many exhibits of armaments from various of our country’s wars, including planes, helicopters, tanks and artillery and anti-aircraft pieces. I decided to pull in, pay the $2 entry fee and take Barkley and myself for a little walk.
The many exhibits are impressive and the grounds are meticulously maintained and beautiful. The chief attraction, though, is the Alabama herself. She is majestic in a rather frightening way. A magnificent piece of machinery, yet I can’t help but imagine the terror of being on the receiving end of the fury of her big guns. Oh, the stories she could tell. And it is the purpose of this park to remind us of those stories of our past.
After walking around a bit, we got back in the car to continue our outing. On the way out of the parking lot, I noticed a sign for the Korean and Vietnam War memorials. I was about to drive right past them when I realized that I could not.
“Good God, Mark,” I thought. “Have you become that jaded?”
I grew up in a Marine Corps family and, as a child, was often surrounded by Korean War veterans. I was part of the Vietnam War generation and, while I did not serve in that war, I have many friends who did. I know men, such as my late father, who served honorably and heroically in both of those wars. I pulled over and parked.
“Come on, Barkley. Let’s go have a look,” I said.
These are nice memorials. While they cannot compare with the memorials to these wars in Washington, D.C., they are inspirational in their own right and seemingly lovingly maintained by the wonderful people of Alabama. We visit the Korean War memorial and walk over to the Vietnam area.
Barkley is heeling perfectly at my side. At this point he is still just a dog. And maybe, even after what is about to happen, he still is. Perhaps it is my perception of what that means that is about to change.
At the Vietnam War memorial, there is a monument to the “Dog Soldiers” of the Vietnam War. To the brave dogs and their handlers who served so heroically in that conflict. Atop the monument are statuettes depicting a squad of American soldiers being led through the bush by a dog and his handler.
In front of the monument on the ground – just in front of us – is a casting of a soldier’s boot prints and four dog paw prints. Maybe I’m not so jaded. This is a very touching tribute. But it’s time to go.
“Come on Barkley. Back to the car,” I say.
That is usually enough of a command for Barkley. But he’s half shepherd and half husky. He’s a strong boy and when he is not quite ready to leave, he’s pretty good at staying put. He shrugs off my gentle tug to his leash.
He glances at me and then back to the boot and paw prints in the ground just in front of him. As I watch him, he steps forward and places his front paws into the rear paw prints of the casting, paw prints that symbolize the brave dogs of war. Then, to my complete amazement, he bows his head. He stands absolutely stock still in that position for a good five seconds.
He then takes two steps straight back, turns around and looks at me as if to say, “OK, we’re good. Let’s hit it.”
There comes an enormous catch in my throat. A tear escapes my right eye and courses down my cheek. As we walk to the car, a movie of my generation is playing in my mind.
Like it or loathe it, the Vietnam War was the defining event of my generation. It killed some of us, injured some of us, divided some of us, unified some of us, toppled a president, composed our music, taught us lessons we needed to learn and, undeniably, shaped who we are today.
And I was about to drive right past that beautiful little war memorial. I guess we become jaded when we are old enough to allow ourselves to remember our past through the History Channel rather than through our own mind’s eye.
Maybe sometimes we need a good friend to tell us, “Whoa. Just wait here for a moment. This is important.”
Even if that good friend is just a dog.