Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
I went back to finish college at the age of 40. In the course of so doing I took 3 separate creative writing classes for fun, beginning, intermediate and advanced. One of my better stories was about the attack dog that trained me to be a dog handler in the US Army. I decided to share it here. Keep in mind that I'm intentionally writing this from the first-person point of view of an uneducated 18 year old, using the type of language and grammar he would as the narrator. My academic writing is obviously not so lax (or creative).
As I approached he bared his teeth and growled. I nearly pissed my pants right then and there. My olive drab green uniform shirt stuck to my flesh like a fly on shit in this sweltering, south Texas morning. It was our first day of training.
"Go on, get in there with him, Richards," Sergeant Baker said.
"What the fuck are you anyway, a pussy?"
"Fucken-A right Sarge," I said. "This mother wants to eat me alive."
"Get out of the way," Corporal Boyle said and pushed past me.
He just walked right in on Harvey. Boyle's got a set of balls on him, I'll give him that, but he ain't got much upstairs. The instant Boyle was within reach of his chain, Harvey lunged at him. Boyle tried to jump back, but he wasn't quick enough; Harvey bit into his highly polished right boot and jerked him off his feet, dragging him into his lair.
"Help me for Christ sake!"
I grabbed Boyle's outstretched left arm and pulled. Me and Harvey were playing tug of war, and I swear I saw Harvey smile. The Sarge and Wilson ran over and it took about a minute before all three of us could wrestle Boyle away, but Harvey held fast to his boot, pulling it off.
"That son of a bitch," Boyle said. "Look at him just chewing away at my good jump boot."
Harvey looked up, burped, then went back to ripping apart the boot.
"You shouldn't have been so stupid as to wear your good boots to training," said Wilson.
"Fuck you," said Boyle.
"Ok, that's enough, men. Get back to your own dogs now," the Sarge ordered.
As we all lined up in front of our assigned dogs in the kennel, an orderly drove up in a jeep. He screeched to a halt and the dust that had been trailing him caught up and enveloped the vehicle. He started unpacking large, steel bowls full of a mix of dry and wet dog food. The dogs started barking like the hounds of hell.
"Grab a bowl and feed your dog," Sarge said. "After they've been eating a minute, walk in slowly while talking nice to them. Pet them if you can, but take it slow. We don't want nobody getting bitten the first morning. There'll be plenty of time for that in a couple a weeks during attack training." Sarge was the only one laughing at his own joke.
I took my bowl of food and approached Harvey. He had the sole of the boot completely tore off. He smelled the food and threw the boot over in front of his wooden house. He looked at me real peaceful like and I thought maybe now we'd be friends, so I bent down and pushed the bowl in toward him. He walked over to it and started to eat, paying me no attention.
I looked right and left to see how the others were making out with their dogs. Most all of the guys in our squad of eight were already petting theirs. I was still pretty scared from my first encounter, but I figured I'd better get moving or they'd think I was a real wuss. I stood and took a tentative step toward Harvey, who growled without looking up.
Sarge came over and said, "You still ain't it with him yet? The other guys are doing ok. What's your problem, Richards?"
"You saw what he did to Boyle. He ain't like the other dogs here. This one is crazy. You go in and show me how, Sarge."
Sarge pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes from his shirt pocket and lit one up with his Zippo lighter, an emblem of three chevrons on it indicating his rank. I smelled the lighter fluid as he clicked it shut and blew out a cloud of smoke.
"Fuck no, I ain't going in with that monster," he said. "That's your job, not mine."
"Why me?" I asked, lighting up one of my Marlboros with my own Zippo. My lighter had engraved on it: Yours is not to question why, yours is but to do or die.
"Because you're the biggest one here Richards, so you get Harvey."
"You're bigger that me Sarge." He had me by at least two inches and thirty pounds.
"But I'm not assigned to Harvey, you are."
"Well what's the matter with him anyway. He should have been trained by now. How long has he been in the army?"
Sarge dropped his butt and stomped it out. He took out a fresh one and lit it up. "According to the Lieutenant, Harvey's seen four tours in Nam as a tracker, and now he's retired here to teach young peckerwoods like you how to survive in a war zone. He's killed more gooks single-handed than most Green Berets. Count yourself lucky you got him, cuz he'll teach you good for when you go over there."
I looked over at Harvey still wolfing down his chow.
"Now try it again," Sarge said.
I cautiously approached this massive, 110-pound German shepherd veteran of foreign war. He didn't seem to notice me, so I inched closer and closer until I was within arm's reach. I extended my right hand, closed in a fist like I was taught so I didn't lose any fingers, and just about laid it on his head when he leaped for my groin. I flew backwards and fell on my ass in a cloud of dust. Everybody looked up and laughed, Sarge the loudest.
* * *
"Heel!" I commanded Harvey in a strong, deep voice, jerking him back hard on his leash, just the way Sarge told me. He said you had to let the dogs know who was boss or they'd walk all over you. Or in my case with Harvey, eat you.
Harvey retreated backwards to my left side as I walked around the parade area. I was doing pretty good controlling him now after two weeks of obedience training. Once you got the choke chain and leash on them they were easy to control if you followed the instructions. I'd learned to wrap the leash around my left hand to only allow about of foot of space in it between me and Harvey. Any time he went to bite me I jerked him back, which tightened the choke chain. Sarge said their necks were their strongest muscles and you couldn't hurt them there, unless of course you choked them too long, in which case they'd be dead.
I gained confidence, keeping Harvey in line with the leash and he sensed it, so he played along and obeyed for commands on the leash. Today we were going to try commands off leash. It was pretty simple: you unhooked the leash and told them to "sit," "stay," and then walk away. After ten or so paces you stop and face the dog and say "come." Nobody had any problem with it, but now it was my turn.
I reached down to unhook the leash from the choke chain and saw my hand trembling pretty bad, but did it anyway. Since Harvey was already sitting, I just said "Stay!" and gave him the hand signal that went along with it: left hand palm down in his face. I walked away with my back toward him thinking I'd feel his teeth sink into me any second. But I got ten paces away and I was still alive. I turned and Harvey was staying!
"Come!" I commanded, slapping my left side at the same time. Harvey trotted over to my left side.
"Heel!" He heeled! This was too much. I felt I had triumphed, was ready for combat.
Then Sarge said, "Good. Tomorrow we begin attack training."
My whole body trembled.
* * *
"Out!" I commanded to no effect.
"Yank him off," shouted Sarge.
I jerked with all my might, but couldn't get Harvey to let go of the padded arm-guard on Boyle's left arm. I yanked harder, and the combined force of me and Harvey pulling on Boyle brought him tripping forward onto his face. Harvey smelled a kill and went for Boyle's throat. He got Boyle's shirt collar in his mouth and shook his head violently back and forth. Boyle was crying like a baby.
Sarge ran up. "Get him off, you fucking asshole, before he kills him."
I was so scared I ripped up on the choke chain and pulled Harvey away from Boyle. Harvey was suspended a few inches off the ground gagging for air. I felt sorry for him and let him down and he immediately went for Boyle again, who was just getting to his feet. I pulled on the leash and Harvey snapped back inches short of Boyle.
"God damn it Richards, I'm getting tired of your fucking up. You either learn to control that dog or I'm shipping you out of this unit, you got it?"
"Sarge, I did everything you told me to. What the fuck else can I do when he won't listen? It's not my fucking fault." I was angry, but also almost on the verge of tears.
"You're pathetic," Sarge said. "You'll be dead inside a week when you hit Nam. Go on, take your dogs back to the kennel," he ordered all of us. "Get the fuck out of my sight."
* * *
Training had to proceed, and this was the day for off-leash attack. I never did figure out how to get Harvey to let go during on-leash attack. I just had to wait till he got tired enough to pull him off. Sarge was frustrated too, because nothing he instructed ever worked on Harvey either. I'd learned from the Lieutenant that this was Sarge's first training with Harvey and Sarge had never had a problem with any dog before. Sarge blamed me for the whole thing, ragged me constantly. Even Boyle started to feel sorry for me.
So Sarge came up with this brilliant plan to get Harvey to let go today. As Harvey was ripping the antagonist to shreds, I was to yell "Out!" at the same time Sarge threw a full canteen of water at him to shock him out of his frenzy long enough to obey my command.
Wilson stood in the distance in the full-body padded attack suit. Boyle had done it for the rest of the dogs, but refused to do it for Harvey. He said it was too hot in the suit and he needed a break. Yeah, sure.
Harvey was at heel on my left. "Watch him," I whispered, giving the alert command. Harvey's ears perked up and he gave a low growl. I could see Sarge standing off to the side with the canteen in his hand.
"Let him go," Sarge said.
I reached down and unhooked the leash. "Attack!" I yelled. Harvey took off at a gallop and covered the twenty yards to Wilson in two seconds. He leaped into the air and landed on Wilson's chest, knocking him to the ground. Harvey was at Wilson's face, but Wilson had his arm up in defense, Harvey tearing into the arm guard.
"Now," shouted Sarge and let the canteen fly.
"Out!" I hollered, timing it at the same instant the canteen made contact in Harvey's side with a dull thud.
Harvey was knocked over sideways with the impact. He was temporarily stunned. He got up slowly and turned around to look at me, associating the command with the blow. I swear, his gleaming red eyes at that moment were like some kind of demon. Harvey started running at me and leaped.
I turned to the right by instinct and took a step back. Harvey landed, mouth open, on my left ass cheek, sinking his fangs into my flesh. A hot, searing pain shot up to my head and I just lost it. I let out a scream so loud it dazed Harvey enough that he let go. I grabbed his choke chain in both hands and lifted him off the ground and then slammed him down onto it, over and over. Then I swung him around in a circle a couple of times and let him go, aiming at a tree ten yards off to the side of the field. Harvey hit it broadside and slid down the trunk and lay in a heap at its base.
Oh my God, I killed him! I ran over to him and he was breathing real shallow. There was no blood so I felt his side but nothing felt broken. Sarge and the others ran over to us.
Sarge laughed, "That'll teach the fucking bastard to mess with us, eh Richards?"
At that moment Harvey raised his head, saw the crowd around him, and jumped to his feet. Sarge had the canteen in his hand.
"Watch him Harvey," I said. Harvey gave his low, menacing growl.
Sarge started to back up slowly. "Richards, call him off, that's a direct order."
"Watch him," I said again. Harvey started to walk toward Sarge and I commanded,
"Stay!" Harvey quit moving but still growled, his lips pulling back to reveal long, sharp weapons of destruction.
Sarge glanced over to the road ten yards away at his jeep. He continued to back up. "That's right Richards, excellent control, good job. Now call him off."
"It's ok, Sarge. Out!" I said, and Harvey sat by me and shut up.
Sarge sighed and started to put his canteen back in its belt pouch.
"Attack!" I yelled.
Harvey sprang into motion like lightening. Sarge dropped the canteen and made a mad dash for his jeep. Harvey was quicker and gained ground rapidly. Sarge got inside and closed the canvas door, but not before Harvey got a hold of the handle and ripped half the door off. As Harvey hung by his teeth onto the door, Sarge got the jeep started and pulled out. After ten yards he slammed on the brakes and the momentum slung Harvey forward until he slammed against the front quarter panel and fell to the ground. Sarge gunned the jeep and took off again, but Harvey was up and took two gallops and jumped up into the passenger side. The jeep skid to a crawl and Sarge jumped out and ran back toward us. A moment later Harvey flew out of the jeep in hot pursuit.
Sarge stopped, drew his Colt 45, cocked a round into the chamber, and aimed. Harvey leaped at the same time I did. I plowed into Sarge with my right shoulder football style as Harvey hit me. There was a deafening explosion in my ear as the gun went off.
All three of us were sprawled on the ground. Sarge recovered first and picked up the gun and pointed it at me.
"So now you're a man, eh Richards? Well now you're going to die like a man." Sarge looked like a rabid dog.
Harvey came from nowhere and pounced on Sarge's gun hand, knocking it free. Sarge punched Harvey in the ribs with his free hand repeatedly with no effect; Harvey tore flesh from his wrist.
"Out, Harvey!" I roared, picking up the gun.
Harvey stopped momentarily and looked at me. He turned to go back to Sarge and I said in a still louder, deeper voice, "NO Harvey, HEEL!" Harvey trotted over to my side and sat, breathing rapidly with his tongue hanging out and drooling saliva onto the ground.
Sarge got up slowly and noticed his mangled hand; it was bleeding pretty bad. He tore off his shirt with his good hand and wrapped up the injured one.
"I'm gonna court-martial your ass for this, Richards. You're fucking through, you hear me?"
I pointed the gun at Sarge's head. "You are aware that I have an expert badge in the 45, ain't you Sarge?"
"You don't have the guts to pull the trigger, you little fucking punk," he said. But the words were shaky this time. I never heard that tone with him before.
"Do it," said Wilson.
"Yeah, do it," said Boyle.
One by one the others joined in: "Do it!"
I pressed the cartridge release and pulled out the ammunition clip and flung it into the field. I threw the unloaded gun at Sarge's feet.
Sarge grabbed it and the corners of his mouth curled up. "I didn't think you had the balls. Let's go, I'm taking you in and writing you up."
"For what?" asked Boyle. "All's I saw was an accident. Harvey attacked you after you threw that canteen at him, that's all."
"Yeah, your own damned fault," Wilson echoed.
"I didn't see nothing," another chimed in.
"Me neither," said another.
"Why you fucking bastards," Sarge said and started to walk toward the ammo clip.
"Watch him Harvey," I said.
Harvey alerted and growled. Sarge stopped, looked at us a second, threw the gun down and stormed off to his jeep.
I reached down and patted Harvey on the head. "Good boy, Harvey." He looked up and licked my hand.