I walk, post-war, with ignoble carriage and this sheepish hunch as if rucked-under by flak-heavy packs of hot laughing sands that don’t have to worry about missing any of the coming fights and drift to me like a sarcastic care package sent the wrong way by the desert to say what comfort is home and here have these grit-bloody cookies and this hilarious picture of me with three of your buddies from when you were still in. Remember them? Guess which one is still alive. But everything’s fine and even when I really try I sleep alright and the nightmares don’t come. But the packages do with fresh loads of jokes from a desert that mocks me like people telling stories about a party that I missed.
If there is anything that is guaranteed in life, it is that we will love things that are not good for us. Few loves are ever a pure win. Some are calamitous. Most are in between, and most of those lean significantly towards the good. Tilting loveward is our most incorruptible instinct. It is the one thing we do that always moves in the same direction as God, so it is the movement that makes us both most human and most divine.
It is why we love our dogs, so often doing so not because of them, but in spite of them. The strife and inconvenience that they bring to our lives almost immediately outweigh the joy: the ruined rugs and floors; the shoes, furniture and walls chewed to pieces; the holes in the yard and the fence, the running away. The vet bills. The apologies to the neighbors and the boarding expenses when we go on vacation (if we still take vacations, now that we have a dog). The piles of dog-specific clutter that enters our homes and disrupts our lives from deep down in the Feng all the way up to the shui. And unless you are a full time hunter or a sled driver in the Yukon, the return we receive on this investment in chaos is rarely more than a wagging tail and yet another body that we didn’t invite into our bed but is there anyway.
Yet for all that, we look one time at some oversized paws, get nipped by those tiny piranha puppy teeth, and smell that unbelievably sweet vanilla-maple perfume down in their downy coats, and we tilt ever harder loveward.
The years go on and some of the early worries vanish, along with the amount of free space left on the bed. They are years on cruise control when the young dog mostly behaves and our lives are are an often mechanical, sometimes poetic routine. “This is why I got a dog,” we say and mean it because her coat is rich and full and as she naps after hours of running in the park her breaths come easy and even. We don’t know why but suddenly we want to invite friends over. We want people around us, and our dog. We want to show off a little.
The years continue to go on and some of the early worries start to return, along with the amount of free space on the bed because she can’t get up there anymore. We tap the brakes and adjust our speed more frequently. “It is difficult to have a dog,” we say and mean it because the mature dog has some new dietary needs and her coat is thinning and her face is turning white and as she naps after a short walk down the hill to the mailbox her breaths come with a slight wheeze and catch. We don’t know why but suddenly we want to sleep, too. We want to be alone with our thoughts, and our dog. We want to cry a little.
So yes, it becomes increasingly difficult to say, honestly, that we’re happy we have a dog. Yet for all the woes that I could easily catalog over the 15 years of a tumultuous life with our dear Lucy, I find us undeniably diminished by her departure. She died yesterday, medically induced. It was a decision we made based on the fact that for however much longer she might go on, every single day would be both her best day remaining, and also worse than the one before. We did it for her. We did it to let her go out on the highest note she had left.
We could have had it done at home, but at the vet she was well known and even better loved. We sat with her there on the floor and as the sedatives took effect the whole building seemed to sag with her muscles. She worked her way at first voraciously through the pile of treats that the doctor set before her. Then she forgot them, rested her chin on the blanket, and let her tongue hang comically and adorably from the front of her mouth. The rest was done with a somehow tender clinical ease, by way of two more injections, and she faded gently out from there without so much as the tiniest twitch or final significant breath. She was just still there – only not – and there was no longer anything we could ask of her. That, I suppose, is the final gift: that she no longer has to wonder how to make us happy.
She could have gone on for a while, survivor that she was. As a pup she was bitten in the face by a rattlesnake and barely flinched. I, on the other hand, drove so fast and recklessly to the animal hospital in a rented roller skate of a car that news helicopters were being scrambled. Years later, the new dog we got to be her companion wound up turning on her and attacking her brutally several times. We found that dog a new home (literally – not in an “off to live on a farm” kind of way). She had food allergies and skin conditions and more medical issues than I can list. But in the end there was always Lucy, waddling bow-legged along and pawing her nose at a world that seemed bent on holding her back. She kept going.
But the joy was gone for her. She really just slept through any stretch of time in which she had no reasonable hope for food. She followed us to bed but could barely manage the stairs. Life was naught but compulsion and habit, and was only getting worse, so we let her finally get off those aching legs of hers forever.
We remember her best, perhaps, driven for years by a steroid imbalance that left her with an improbably large liver and a literally insatiable hunger for food, rushing to the kitchen whenever she heard the dishwasher open so she could scrounge up any scraps she could reach. She lived to eat, and she died among food.
I only ask her to please, just once, make sure to poop in God’s living room on Roomba day. My children can attest that it might be the only time you ever get to hear Him swear.
In her life and again in her death, Lucy tilts us loveward.
Seven years ago, this was. The Boy wasn’t even a year old, and the girl was only three. They’re 7 and 10 now. Wow.
We didn’t go anywhere in search of Christmas, necessarily. But we did go driving off to a place where Christmas might be, if it were going to be anywhere.
“He looks out the window a lot, Papa.”
“He sure does.”
“Why do you think he does it?”
“Well, do you remember when I told you that his spirit was a miracle?”
“I think so. I think you said it was a miracle because it hasn’t done anything twice.”
“That’s right. Because for a tiny moment, it was the only thing in the world that had not done anything twice. And now there’s a world full of things that he hasn’t seen even once. Turns the world into a kind of miracle for him.”
“That’s why he laughs at it?”
“No, he’s laughing when he looks out at it because he wants to do everything he can with it to make it laugh like he is. He doesn’t know where it comes from or how it starts or anything about it except that he wants it to keep going. That’s how you feel when you are tiny, and new, and haven’t done things twice or seen things once, and it’s the part of it that’s the same for him as it is for us.”
“If it’s the same, Papa, then how come you don’t laugh so much?”
“Jeez, how old are you again?”
“Three and a half.”
“Hm. Well, I guess I don’t laugh so much because after a while you find out that some things don’t laugh back. And after a longer while, after too many things don’t laugh back, you just get tired.”
“Too tired to laugh?”
“Too tired to laugh, baby. But we remember that the world was a miracle for all of us, once. We remember that we saw new things everywhere we looked, and we expected everything to be laughing because we were laughing, even though it has been too long, sometimes, since anything up and laughed with us. That’s what Christmas is, sweetie: Being old and tired and still laughing, for a day, like we did when we were still playing with miracles.”
“But I’m not old.”
“No, you’re not. And you never have to be, because to your brother you are everything he sees when he looks out the window. And laughs.”
People like to say that you can conquer your fears, if you can just manage to face them. I disagree. The more you face your fear, the more you details you collect about what there is to be afraid of. The more certain you become. I had thirty chances – thirty-five, I always forget about jump school – to get over my fear of heights. All I got over was my interest in jumping out of airplanes. I’d do it again if I had to. If I had to.
The trained eye watches that video and sees a few fellas who are going to have a hell of a time getting their affairs in order before the ground comes up to meet them.
There’s no point in trying to avoid the ground, it’s everywhere. Still, your brain tells your body to find a way around it. Your brain screams at you to not let that meeting happen. You are told to look for the treetops and estimate your distance to the ground, but it can’t rightly be done. Like a drunk, you have no idea, really, when you’re going to hit bottom. Hopping off a chair or a platform 5 or 6 feet off the ground gives you the impression that you understand your position relative to it, but it’s not really true. It’s really just something you don’t care about, because you know you’re safe. You aren’t falling long enough to care about how fast it’s happening. From under a parachute, the closer you get to the ground the more you realize that you have no idea – no way of knowing – just how fast you are falling. They tell you it’s twenty-eight feet per second, and that’s a neat thing to say, but screaming it at the ground, in the dark, isn’t going to make things any easier. Besides, you’re only supposed to make noise out there if you are hurt.
You’ve been stuffed in this tiny airplane for the last hour, like tobacco in a cigarette, sweating. Sixty pounds on your lap, forty on your back. Your legs are woven into the legs of the man across from you, because the bird just wasn’t built for this. When it shakes, the dust of all the world’s time zones fall from the exposed wires and tubes. It has about two decades worth of flight hours, and has been doing this since Vietnam. The skin’s so thin that you think you can see right through it, all the way to home and your mom and that day when you thought you needed this, somehow. Even if she didn’t love you then, she loves you in this memory, because this memory wants you to go back. The old plane creaks and settles when it’s sitting still, and then it really lurches and lifts you into the sky.
The noise. Jesus, the noise. A little red light and the commands you echo not because you can hear the jumpmaster shout them, but because you know where and when they belong, even if you haven’t figured that out for yourself yet. Even if figuring out where and when you belong is really why you’re here. The noise, the light, the commands. And the games. You deflect and you distract. Your mind is screaming at you to not do this. To stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are tough. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are crazy. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself that you are screwed. This time your mind doesn’t rebuke.
The light goes from red to green, and finally your instincts are jolted by all your years and you know what to do when lights turn green. Your mind tries one more time: STOP.
There’s a dozen ways to screw this up, and your only comfort comes from knowing that almost none of them will kill you. That’s left to God, so you’d better hope He was there for pre-jump. It’s so dark and loud and your feet are shuffling and really you’re just doing what the other people are doing and all you know for sure is that if you buck this trend you will ruin the night for everyone behind you.
Then it’s silent but for the numbers in your head. Counting because they told you it was important, that if you made it to five there was something going wrong and you had better pull that reserve. But you’re not really doing the counting. They’re just shapes in your mind, a slide show with your eyelids stapled open. Just terror and symbols occupying the same ether, no causality. Somehow you always knew that if you made it to five you would probably make it all the way to nine or eleven or however many it would take before nothing else will take.
Somewhere in there came the yank. When the straps pull tight it is the only burning in the groin you will ever love. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Counting – six, seven…you can stop that now. The chute is open, the night is dead. You might or might not hear the quad props of a fifty year-old airplane trailing off somewhere. Maybe the moon is out and the varied terrain below you is somewhat visible. Varied. It’s mostly flat, and it’s all hard as trigonometry. Maybe the moon is gone and everything is black, except that matronly silk vestment above you, which is the darkest green Creation has ever seen. A perfect circle cut into the nothing overhead. You have a dark halo.
But twenty-eight feet per second isn’t interested in what’s above you.
Less than a year before I reported for duty in South Korea, two 14-year-old school girls who were walking along the road were somehow hit and killed by a US Army bridge-launching vehicle. I say “somehow” because that machine is something which very few people will ever see in their lives. I spent eight years in the Army and never saw one. It is uncommon and such a cumbersome giant that it can do nothing suddenly. To be surprised enough to be struck by it defies explanation, yet it found two children in rural South Korea and left them dead on the side of a quiet highway. Like so many of history’s dangers, they must have heard and seen it coming for so long that they had time to stop being afraid of it. By the time it was upon them it was too late to get out of the way.
That it was an accident should not even need to be said. But with all the politics and the jarring connotations of a foreign military being responsible for the death of local children, it was not just an accident. When the ensuing legal process ended in the worst possible way – with a verdict of not guilty – it strained relations between the US and South Korea until they were at the worst point they had been in years. Still, remarkably, and perhaps because enough time had gone by, the ongoing protests I saw as I passed through Seoul were rather perfunctory and tame. I did not feel unwelcome there. If nothing else, I wanted to get out of the other side of that year feeling the same way.
When I arrived with a few other soldiers at my unit in the southern half of the country, we were given briefings about being good visitors, good guests in a foreign place. We were handed booklets that introduced us to Korean customs that we might find odd or unsettling – proper ways to say thank you, different meal habits, and the fact that Korean men would often act in ways that an American would find decidedly feminine. But the death of the school girls was still fresh enough that we were reminded of it as much as anything else. It was an event that was still a functioning part of our relationship with our hosts, and the sort of thing that could sneak up on you with startling consequences if you stopped paying attention.
I heard the warnings and scoffed at the booklets, partly because I was still young enough to believe I didn’t need to be told anything, and partly because I recall the booklets having a distinct presumption of American cultural immaturity – a dull cliché that has always made me bristle. It was also pretty clear that most of the people stationed at that post wouldn’t really need any of this information, because they wouldn’t have much contact with Korean culture, insulated as they were by the sheer concentration of American service members in the area. The post was home to about 25,000 US soldiers, airmen, and marines, so while it was in South Korea, it was foreign in geography only. But the warnings, the booklets, and the customs would become more important for me if I was to get the position I wanted – to take charge of one of the three remote detachments near the North Korean border.
Unfortunately, that position had already been taken by Staff Sergeant Lamb, who arrived a few weeks before I did. I had served with Sgt. Lamb at my last duty assignment and knew him to be genuinely unreliable and irresponsible. I could lie and say that I had the Army’s best interests in mind when I mentioned his shortcomings to my new platoon sergeant and platoon leader, but really, I only did it because I knew that I was the most likely choice to replace him. It didn’t take much. When I met with Sgt. Arnold and Lt. Kwan for introductions on the first day, I said “I heard you put Sgt. Lamb on the Det.”
LT. Kwan was short and thick, and two or three years younger than I was. Fresh out of college, he looked studious and clean in wire-rimmed glasses. He opened a drawer and removed a folder. I could see Lamb’s name on it. With just a shadow of an accent he asked, “You know him?”
“Yes, sir. I do.”
He looked at Sgt. Arnold – an over-starched uniform and a mustache too neat to trust – and then looked back to me. “You like him?”
I could see by the folder and by the way he asked, that they already had their doubts, so I dove in. “He’s late for everything. Used to fall asleep in class all the time.”
It was a low move on my part, some petty brinkmanship that I could not always have gotten away with in the Army. We have all manner of creeds and codes and unwritten rules, and one of the most commonly held is the one that says you do not undermine your fellow soldiers. When I was in a combat unit, where trust is sometimes more important than honesty, this rule was among the highest of all commandments. Discrediting a fellow noncommissioned officer for my own interests probably would have been the best way to guarantee that I did not get the job. But in this military intelligence unit, more corporate than combative, it was the best way forward.
And it worked. They pulled Sgt. Lamb back to headquarters, and I was flown to my stolen detachment by helicopter. I don’t remember how long the flight was. The Blackhawk wound low with its doors open, through heavy green valleys and over countless rice paddies and I would have been happy if we flew around up there forever. When we finally came up between two tree-covered ridges and touched down on the helipad – my helipad – we were about a 60-mile drive from the nearest US Army Garrison, nestled atop a mountain that overlooked the Yellow Sea to the West, and just a handful of miles from the river that separated us from North Korea.
Somewhere on that river and extending out into the sea, an invisible line had been drawn. You could see it clearly enough on a map, and no matter which side you were on, the bad guys were on the other. Sometimes a North Korean ship drifted too far South, always accidentally of course, and we would know because fighters from the nearby airbase would fly past us and towards whomever made the mistake. Often it was just a wayward fishing boat, but borders are borders and must be observed, even when you can’t see them.
About halfway down the winding road that accessed the mountain was a barracks and a few related buildings that housed a Republic of Korea Marine unit. We knew them as the ROK Marines, a small defense force ostensibly in place to protect us and that corner of the country from a dubious, yet oft-invoked, North Korean threat. I can only guess at a count, but between them and a handful of Korean intelligence soldiers, there were probably a couple hundred or so native military personnel on the mountain in total. There were only four Americans – myself, Private First-Class Judge, and Privates Reyes and Priest.
Along with the people, there were dogs seemingly everywhere up there. This was common all over Korea, and it was part of the reason you couldn’t eat a piece of meat in that country without someone half-joking that it was probably gaegogi, or dog. The Marines down the road had several of them, most of which were of a good-sized breed called Jindo, strong dogs that stood very upright and vaguely resembled a husky with neat white or reddish-brown fur. In that military environment they looked purposeful and not much like pets, so even though I was not given any reason to fear them, I never approached them. They belonged to the Marines, existing on the other side of the line between us and them.
That line, unlike the border with the north, was blurry and even harder to see. It was not drawn on any maps and it did not stay in one place. It was a line with no enemies on either side, but the same mandate that it be observed, lest there be consequences. Up there on that mountain, the line moved when we did, and we simply had to be careful not to move so quickly that we got ahead of it.
Which is not to say that there was any tension between us and the South Koreans. Indeed, we got along very well, joining them for small cookouts on the weekends and playing soccer with them on the large dirt field in front of their barracks. Many nights they would take two or even three of us – someone always had to remain on duty – into the town at the base of the mountain, where we would take off our shoes and be treated to a real Korean meal. Whoever was eldest at the table would pour us the first of the soju (or did the eldest get served first? I still can’t remember), and we would eat and drink and hear stories of the American soldiers who preceded us on the mountain in years past. They were accustomed to being generous hosts, and we did our part to be gracious guests.
Still, we had certain manners to observe and practice. And though we were far away from the crowding and politics of Seoul, someone always seemed to find an occasion to remind us of the girls we killed out in the country. Not as any kind of a warning or an accusation, but simply because it was still part of the fabric of their experiences, and so it would work its way into conversations without much intent. Also, arriving when I did, the one-year anniversary of the incident would have been approaching. I remember being relieved that we were out there on that island. Not only was it far from the site of the accident, but it was also far from the capital, where the bulk of the demonstrations would be concentrated, and the Americans were sure to be a little less comfortable than usual. On the island we were blameless, all of the Koreans were our friends, and the only thing that didn’t smile was the dogs.
We had a dog of our own, the mascot of the detachment. He had official orders assigning him to the post, just like a human soldier, signed by a Major or a Lieutenant Colonel. He was just a little mutt of fifteen pounds or so, scruffy and permanently dirty, probably born on the street and rescued by chance by a shopkeeper on her way home, as was often the case. His name was Frodo, given to him twelve years ago by whatever Americans were serving the mountain at the time he was brought there.
Frodo was old and ragged but still had a lot of energy, and I thought I would bond a little with my soldiers and the Korean Marines and the mountain in general by taking him on a short run down the road. A little PR tour where I could smile and wave at the local troops, showing my goodwill and fitness for the job. Frodo would serve as my liaison, a symbol of my right to be there and my willingness to get along. Private Priest and PFC Judge agreed to go with me, and the four of us went through our gate. We nodded at the skinny guard in his faded and tired-looking uniform and started jogging downhill.
I wasn’t thinking about much, other than what a beautiful day it was. It was May or June, and the early Summer view of the Yellow Sea made me pious and exultant. The road wound steeply downward. My troops were in good spirits. Frodo skittered back and forth across the road on his short legs, as happy as the rest of us to be free and moving. I felt perfect about the impression we were making on our hosts.
Whether my giddiness caused me to miss a warning sign I cannot say. There should probably have been terrible barks and growls from the brush at the side of the road, and I should have heard it coming in time to stop it. But I do not remember any of that. What I do remember is Frodo, being ripped at by the jaws of one of the ROK Marines’ stout dogs. I had brought him across some invisible line known only to the animals, drawn in scent and instinct, and the Jindo had raked him from the road and into its mouth. It heeded none of the shouts that I didn’t hear, but must have been coming from its Marine handlers. I wondered later whether the Korean dog would have understood me if I screamed at it in English.
Surely nobody could have stopped it – once the dogs got going, so the only truly useful thing to do would have been to never go out in the first place. That’s what Sgt. Lamb would have done. He would have stayed inside, sleeping every chance he got, and thinking nothing of his duty outside of those gates. He would have avoided the Koreans as much as possible, and he would not have gone running. None of this would have happened, Frodo would not have been killed, and I wouldn’t have been so confused about how something that really wasn’t my fault could feel so much like it was. But of course Sgt. Lamb wasn’t up there. I was, because I sat there in Lt. Kwan’s office and told the truth when honor should have made me lie.
None of that mattered in the least anymore. What mattered was whatever I did next, and I had no idea what that would be. The Koreans and PFC Judge were looking at me, Priest was looking at Frodo, and Frodo was looking down the road, in the direction his head fell when the dog dropped him there. I wasn’t looking at anything, because there was far too much to see. A voice inside me said do something. Now. But we had no vehicle nearby, and cell phones were not so ubiquitous at the time, so all I could do was nearly kill myself sprinting up that mountain to do something useful, even though there was nothing left to be done. When I try to think about it, my memory always rushes out somewhere in the strained breaths on that winding road up to our building, and I realize that I wasn’t running to get something done. I was running to get the hell away from there. I knew I could not stand there and look at Frodo anymore, so the one thing I managed to do in that crisis was to look like I was advancing, while actually running away.
Ultimately, I don’t remember anything else that happened after his death, after that dog raged out of the woods and tore into him right in front of me. I only remember Frodo being scooped and shaken, the fact that it was over almost immediately, and most clearly, I remember that the six of us who witnessed it were completely frozen in our places. I stood there with Priest and Judge on one side of the carnage, those three Marines on the other, and every one of us just hung there until the big dogs dropped little Frodo’s limp body into the gravel on the side of the road. I don’t think there was even any blood.
Of his body or who took care of it or where he ended up I have no idea. Knowing the Army as I do, I have to believe that the event would have generated a small pile of paperwork, a meeting or two to formalize the blame and be forgiven by someone with no right to do it, and finally a grim, silent drive into the maddening traffic of Seoul with Frodo wrapped in a towel. The Army put him out there, and the Army would want him back. But if any of that happened, I don’t know it.
And I don’t want to know, because it gives me a chance to hope that something much better happened for him. Something less administrative and cold. Something that anchored him to his home and didn’t put his fate in the hands of strangers anymore. It gives me a chance to hope that while I was running back up the mountain to do nothing of any use, the ROK Marines gathered him up gently from the road and carried him behind their gates. And that later, with their dogs watching or not, they gave him a quiet and reverent burial somewhere on his mountain.
I hope for these things because otherwise it would be too easy to say that Frodo was just a dog, and that to accidentally kill a dog does not deserve to be spoken of the way that accidentally killing a human is. But he was not just a dog, any more than it was just an accident when an American vehicle ran over two Korean school girls on another beautiful summer day the June before. They were not alone on that road, and we were not alone on that mountain, or that island, or that country, and it’s never just anything when you are not alone. In this case it was a dog and the other five sets of eyes on the road, and the ears and opinions of everyone who would hear about it, and most importantly of everyone – American and Korean – whose lives belonged to that mountain. It was all of that and all of us and those two girls who are still dying on that road out in the countryside, forever being snuck up on by something as loud and slow and huge as history.