There is no faith which has never yet been broken, except that of a truly faithful dog.
Last night, my wife and I watched the film Marley and Me. I was a fan of the author, John Grogan, during the four years he wrote a column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His writing always touched a nerve in me, but because I knew that Marley dies at the end of his breakout book, I had purposely not read it. With some hesitation, I watched the film.
Most of my life, a four-legged animal has been close by. Over the past fifty-one years, my wife and I have had dogs of various sizes. There was our Irish Wolfhound, whose only fear was overhead airplanes and whose bristly muzzle served as support for sticky-fingered toddlers. There was our rough-coated Collie, who had a long nose she tucked into your crotch while she stared up into your soul. Our last dog, a Bichon Frisé, stole candy out of pocketbooks and never deemed to look, let alone bark, at another dog. She was convinced she was human, a grand dame of some rank and privilege. She died in my wife’s arms, her last heartbeats matching my wife’s as she slipped away.
But, in watching the twenty-two dogs that played the part of Marley in the film last night, I thought of only one animal from my past: Buster.
My father rescued Buster when I was in third grade. He was a short-haired, big-boned fellow, maybe a mix between a Boxer and a Lab. He responded to a leash, as though someone had trained him. He seemed gentle, which was good because he looked a tad scary when he barked. He also had scars that ran down the side of his right rear leg. We had no idea what caused them.
My brothers and I fancied ourselves accomplished animal trainers. So, one day, when the weather was turning a tad cold, we took his leash off his collar, walked a couple of steps, and called, “Come.” But Buster didn’t come. He looked at us, turned his head, and ran like the dickens. Within twenty seconds, he was gone from sight. We rushed home and told our parents, who weren’t at all impressed with our training skills. We searched and searched. We couldn’t find him.
Snow came and then more snow. It was bone-crunching cold. And then, a month later, the phone rang one night. A stranger said he had Buster and asked if he could bring him over. We were stunned. An hour later, a tall man in his late thirties arrived with Buster in tow. Buster was much thinner, and his paws were in bad shape.
The man said he was recently out of the military and had served in Korea. He said he had contacted the shelter to find who had adopted Buster so he could return him. He had come home that day and found Buster at the door to his apartment.
“But how did Buster find you?” my father asked.
“Buster is an unusual dog,” the man said.
We just stared at him.
“When I came home from Korea, my wife had given birth to our son,” he said. “We had to find an apartment. None of them allowed dogs. When I took Buster to the shelter, we lived two towns over. I’ve since found a nicer apartment ten miles from there.”
“Are you telling me that Buster made his way, in freezing cold and snow, without knowing where he was going, and found you miles from here?” my father asked.
“Yes,” said the man. “Buster is used to a harsh environment.”
My mother nodded. The truth hit her first.
“Buster served with you in Korea,” she said.
“Yes,” the man said. “I was in recon. Buster was a courier dog, among other things. You may have noticed the scars on his rear leg. He was dropped by machine-gun fire, but he kept going.”
He looked down at Buster, who had not moved from his side.
“I brought him back with me from overseas. He is a trusted soldier and my best friend. But I can’t keep him. I don’t have the money for a house, and I’ll get caught if I try to hide him in the apartment.”
He looked at my tall, lanky father, my tiny mother, and my two brothers and me.
“I sense you’re a good family. I know you’ll care for him and love him.”
He knelt down and took Buster’s large head in his hands.
“Goodbye, my friend,” he said.
He stood and walked to the front door.
“Buster,” he said in a firm voice. “Down.”
Buster immediately dropped to the floor.
“Stay,” he said.
And he walked out our front door.
Buster never ran away again.
We moved to another house with acres of woodland behind us. At the bottom of a very steep descent, a creek cut lazily through pines and an old mill toward a county park. With Buster in the lead, my brothers, friends and I explored trails, sniffed spoor, and lay in the coolness of rotting leaves during the summers. One time, Buster blocked my dad’s path when he was carrying my younger brother to his bedroom. My brother’s body was limp with sleep, and Buster, fearing that something was wrong, would not let my dad pass until he shook my brother awake to prove that all was right with the world. Buster once chased off a dog twice his size that was nipping at our heels while sledding, and he wouldn’t allow trash collectors on our property if they wore red bandanas — the color of the armband and star on Communist soldiers’ uniforms in Korea.
As much as Marley barked, damaged and disobeyed, Buster protected and embraced. Just as Owen Wilson struggled to find the courage to carry Marley to the vet for his final visit, my father had to carry Buster, who had been dropped by cancer and could no longer keep going. And just as the three children of the movie family struggled to find the words for their goodbye at Marley’s gravesite, my two brothers and I have never forgotten the privilege of sharing our home with a good soldier and our best friend.
— James Hugh Comey —