Last night, my wife and I watched the film, Marley and Me. I was a fan of John Grogan during the four years that he wrote a column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. His writing always touched a nerve in me, and, because I knew that at the end of his breakout book, Marley dies, I had purposely not read it. It was with some hesitation that I watched the film.
Most of my life there has been a four legged animal close by. Over the last 41 years, my wife and I have had dogs of various sizes. There was Strider, a 7 foot long Irish Wolfhound whose only fear was overhead airplanes and whose bristly muzzle served as the support for sticky-fingered toddlers. There was Kira, a rough coated collie who had a long nose that she tucked into your crotch as she stared up into your soul. Our last dog was Carling, a Bichon Frise who stole candy out of pocket books and never deemed to look, let alone bark at, another dog. She was fully convinced that 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.
Treasa, our Maine Coon cat, missed Carling so much that she died 8 months later. We presently have Smudge, a black rescue cat, who has no idea that she is feline. She runs to you when you whistle and call her name. She greets strangers at the door. She finds small bits of things (crumbled paper, plastic caps, twisty ties) and deposits them at your feet. She looks at you and chirps until you throw the object. She then runs and retrives the object after much cavorting and pouncing. Smudge, from the first, initiated this game of fetch. We suspect that, through some odd twist, a dog lurks beneath her black coat.
But, in watching the 22 dogs that played the part of Marley in the film last night, I thought of only one animal from my past: Buster.
Buster was a dog my father adopted from the Delaware County SPCA in the fall of my 3rd grade. He was a short haired, big boned dog, 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 like he could be scary if he growled or 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 that we were accomplished animal trainers. So one day, as the weather was turning bitter, we took his leash off his collar, walked a couple of steps, and called, "Come." Only Buster didn't come. He looked at us, turned his head and looked down Garrett Road in Drexel Hill, and turned and ran like hell. Within 30 seconds, he was gone from sight. We ran and told our parents who weren't at all impressed with our training skills. We searched and searched, but 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 that he had Buster and asked if he could bring him over. We were stunned. An hour later, a tall man in his mid 40s arrived with Buster in tow. Buster was much thinner, and his paws were in bad shape.
The man said that he was recently out of the military, that he had served in Korea. He said that he had contacted the SPCA 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, confused.
"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 accept dogs. When I took Buster to the SPCA, we lived in Media. I've since found a nicer apartment in Swarthmore."
"Are you telling me that Buster made his way from Drexel Hill to Media and then to Swarthmore, in the freezing cold and snow, without knowing where he was going, and he found you?" my father asked.
"Yes,"said the man. "Buster is used to a harsh environment."
My mother nodded. The truth hit her first.
"Did Buster serve with you in Korea?" she asked.
"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 I.
"You are a good family. I know that 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 walked out our front door.
Buster never ran away again.
There were many adventures where Buster was a key player for the next decade. We moved to a house in Springfield with acres and acres of woodland directly behind us. At the bottom of a very steep descent, Crum Creek cut lazily through pines and an old mill toward Smedley Park. With Buster in the lead, my brothers and friends and I explored trails and sniffed spoor and lay in the coolness of rotting leaves during the summers, and sled down the 9th hole of Springfield Golf Course during the winter. There was the 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 David awake to show that all was right. There was the time that Buster fought a huge Husky that was nipping at our heels while sledding, and the many chains that he snapped when he saw someone wearing the color red.
But, these will keep for another time.
As much as Marley barked and damaged and disobeyed, Buster protected and embraced and loved us. 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 Grogan 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.
Copyright (c) 2011 by James Hugh Comey