As I was leaving the dog park last week, hurrying to get the kids from school, an older gentleman was walking slowly through the parking lot. He approached Our Best Friend, smiled at him, and said, “Sit.” Our Best Friend promptly sat. The man extended his hand, OBF lifted a paw, and the two shook hands.
I was quite amazed. OBF doesn’t listen to strangers, and is usually aloof with people who try to make friends. Yet he seemed to trust this man on sight. “He likes you,” I told the man. “He’s not usually friendly with strangers.”
“He’s a good boy,” the man told me. “Let me tell you a story.”
Uh oh, I think. I’m already going to be late for the girls. But somehow, I didn’t have the heart to say, “Another time, perhaps.” There was something about this man that spoke of another time and place. I couldn’t just walk off — and besides, he’d already launched into his story.
“In World War Two, I was in the navy– the American navy. I was stationed in Honolulu, you know. One day, I was walking down the street, and saw this starved, emaciated dog. He was half-dead, his ribs were showing, so I picked him up and carried him back to the ship.
“Well, as you can imagine, the other men on the boat laughed at me for bringing in this dog. They told me, ‘He’s your dog, you take of him, you find food, clean up his mess.’ Of course I did. They all thought I was crazy.“Now, I was a mechanic. We had a four engines on the ship, and it was my job to clean out the oil that gathered underneath. And I did it at night. At three in the morning, the only people awake on board was me and the guy steering the ship, way up top in the pilot’s room.
“So one night I was carrying up buckets of oil from the engine room, which is at the bottom of the boat. I took it on deck, and…” Here he paused, looking sheepish and apologetic. “It’s what we did in those days, I tossed the oil overboard. But I must have spilled some on the deck. I came back up with two more pails, and I slipped on the deck. My legs shot out from under me, and I went flying under the railing of the ship. My shirt caught on the hook we used for the landing bumpers. So there I was, hanging on the side of the ship, the waves were hitting me up to here,” he said, holding his hand mid-way up his chest. “I yelled and yelled, but no one could hear me over the engines and waves and it was the middle of the night.”
I knew what was coming.
“But the dog heard me,” he said. “He came running, saw me hanging there, and ran off. I had taught him how to climb the ladders on the ship, so he ran up to the helmsman, barking and tugging on his pant leg. The helmsman followed him down, found me, and pulled me back on board. That dog saved my life.”
“Wow,” I told him, as I pondered the plausibility. “That’s some story.”
“I came here after the war,” he continued, “and I was afraid to try and bring the dog across the border– I didn’t have shots for him or nothing, I couldn’t afford it. So I gave him to a buddy of mine in Boston. Then, a while later, I went to visit my friend. I got in the car, and didn’t see the dog in the back seat. Well, the dog recognized my voice, and he jumped over the seat and straight into my lap. He went crazy licking my face. He was a great dog.” He took Our Best Friend’s paw again. “He’s a good dog too. You take good care of him.”
“We try to,” I answered.
By now I was at least five minutes late picking up the kids from school. I shoved OBF into the back of the van, and as I drove off, I wondered how much, if any, of that story was true. And why he chose to tell it to me. And why I didn’t just interrupt him and walk off, so I wouldn’t be late for the kids. And what the heck I would do with this bizarre event. I kind of felt like the Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner… except this guy didn’t have an albatross around his neck.