All The Dogs In My Life

by Thong Ba Le

When I opened the side door and pushed the bicycle to the front of my parents' house to go to school, Berna, my brother's German shepherd, was ready and waiting for me as usual. He always got up very early in the morning and woke everybody up with his loud barking as soon as he saw Mr. Tu's sandwich truck passing by with the ringing bell.

My half brother acquired this dog after he returned from the resistance in which he had fought for ten years against the French colonists. He liked dogs and I heard that he had his own "French Berger" when he was 13 year old, the year I was born. The dog Berna was big, almost as tall as my Sterling bicycle. Since my brother was preparing to join the Vietnamese Officer Candidate School, he asked me to take care of his dog. I was so pleased and happy to do so.

This was the first time I had a dog to play and run with. It was like the story of the dog Lassie in the movie that I saw many times before. I was so proud of having Berna with my friends in the neighborhood. They also had dogs but theirs were so small and short. Therefore, they liked Berna very much and always stroked his hair and hugged him. Berna was good with kids and friendly with the people whom he knew. Besides, he loved of being spoiled. One of my friends used to give him soup bones from his father's beef-noodle-soup store. Another friend fed him hard biscuits, which were the kind that French soldiers snacked on when they were in Hue over a year ago before they withdrew back to France. Since I got Berna, the three of us became friendlier; we did not fight one another for any reason like we used to when we played soccer.

Later, my friends and I did not play soccer much because we liked to take Berna to the countryside and play with him. He liked to run in the meadow and race with us. When he ran, he opened his big mouth wide to breathe. From time to time, he looked and barked at the three 15- and 16-year-old kids who were pushing and peddling hard on their bicycles to try to catch up with Berna. He ran behind those three young teenagers, but then he passed them, looked back, and slowed down to wait for the already tired kids.

Berna's body was slim and firm with smooth dark hair. His chest was big, his legs were strong, and muscular; he looked like a racehorse. Pedestrians passing by stopped, admired, and waved to the dog that was running and barking joyfully.

It was a beautiful, sunny, and breezy Sunday morning in April with high clouds in the blue sky. Berna barked noisily because I chained him in the house. He wanted to go out and see people who were ready to cast their votes to elect the first President of the Republic of Vietnam.

Many military trucks carried high school students who raised banners with the slogan "Put the blue ballots in trash cans and cast your red vote in envelopes." They were running the promotion for this general public election. The teachers told me that the reason for the election was to elect Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem to replace the Vietnamese Emperor who currently resided in France. I had already participated in this propaganda at school and on that morning, I would join other students for the mission.

My father did not like the idea of overthrowing the Emperor because he knew the mother of the Emperor. He often took me to the Imperial Palace on his trip to visit the Emperor's mother and played cards with her. I still remember the sweet, small seeded Chinese prunes that Her Majesty used to give me on those visits.

On the afternoon of this special day, I returned home exhausted because I stood up on a truck all morning yelling the slogan. My throat was sore and dry. After taking a shower, I unchained Berna and let him run around while I was combing my hair. Suddenly, I heard a terrible voice crying for help. It came from the bread vendor in front of my house: "Please help me, somebody, crazy dog!"

I dropped my comb on the table and ran out to see what was happening. When I got there, I saw the terrified vendor leaning against the wall and Berna was standing up on his back legs. His two front legs were on both sides of the vendor's face and his mouth was close to the poor young man's nose. I yelled at Berna to get down. "Berna, down, down." Berna got down but continued to bark. The vendor regained his breath and was very angry, telling me to keep a lease on the dog before he kills somebody. I apologized to him for the incident and took Berna inside. After this day, I did not allow him to run around without my supervision.

My brother graduated from the Military training school nine months later and transferred to Danang, a coastal city south of Hue. He decided to take Berna with him. On that day, I was so sad that I did not want to eat anything. I just locked my door and stayed in my room. I did not wanted to talk to anyone either. I felt like I was losing one of the most precious things in my life.

Berna stayed with my brother until he transferred to a combat unit. My brother later gave him to the owner of a famous restaurant in Danang. By that time, my parents had given me another dog, a French Berger.

This dog was over a year old. I named this Berger "Do," pronounced "Dough." This was truly the first dog of my life. Do was a female with soft black fur and big round eyes. She was not as big as Berna but bigger than a Vietnamese dog. Her bark was strong and very loud although she was still young. I used to take her to Thuan An beach and let her swim in the waves. She liked to play in the water. Anytime I threw a piece of wood in the water; she retrieved it and brought it back to me. She could jump very high and was very active. She chewed up any sock that she could find in my brother and sister's rooms. Dogs in my neighborhood were fond of Do, especially the male dogs. They followed her around and mated with her. After a couple years, she and a brown Vietnamese dog became the parents of six puppies, two males and four females. Poor me, I did not have any experience taking care of puppies. I had to feed them and give them baths. My father told me that I was their grand father so I must take care of them. Thanks to my girlfriend and my neighbor for helping me carry out of these difficult tasks. Minh and I had fallen in love about six months before. She was my beautiful sweetheart, with a lovely and nice smile.

I did not know when "my love at the first sight" happened. I knew I fell in love with her each time I rode my Sterling bicycle by her house and saw her standing beautiful like an angel on her front porch. Her tender smile had caught my breath. After many weeks dreaming of her, I decided to write her a long love letter. Then like a miracle, Minh wrote back to me and soon we became a pair of romantic lovers.

I decided to give away five puppies when they got bigger and only kept a male puppy that look like his mother Do. I named this puppy "Da." He grew up very fast and he too was as playful and active as his mother when she was young. Da was light brown with big lovely black eyes.

Then a sad event occurred on a Saturday afternoon when I was studying for the National English Competition in which I represented my school. My younger brother called out my name very loudly from the front door. I stopped reading and hurried out to the porch. There I saw a tractor stopped right in the middle of the street and the driver was standing nervously nearby. On the asphalt road, was Do, lying helplessly with her black eyes opened and blood was coming out from her mouth.

I ran to her and knelt down by her side. I held her still warm and heavy body in my arms, sobbing. I suddenly felt angry and could not control myself; I let go of my dog and jumped toward the poor driver who was shaking with fear. Everybody tried to stop me and then I heard the crying voice of my girlfriend begging me not to hurt the old man. Minh had just found out the bad news and arrived to stop me from beating the driver who accidentally killed my dog.

I calmed down while the old man explained the cause of this tragic accident. He said that he tried to stop his tractor when he saw my dog running across the street. Because the distance between the truck and the dog was too close, he could only avoid hitting her with the front wheels but not the rear ones. He felt so bad for causing this sad accident and he kept saying: " I am so sorry, please forgive me."

I carried Do into the house. My soul was empty because I had just lost my first dog and I would not allow anybody to bury her. My mom explained the right things to me and advised me to let my friends take Do away and bury her at the site of the lotus pond. Two years later, Minh and I became husband and wife and I joined the Navy after graduating from high school. Do's puppy grew up and became the family dog; Da was there to witness the birth of our first two daughters in the following years.

The situation of South Vietnam was getting too complicated after the failure of the Revolution in 1962. I graduated from the Naval Academy and served aboard a Landing Ship Mechanized (LSM). The captain of my ship granted me permission for two weeks leave due to the birth of our first son. Minh was staying in the hospital of Dr. Than Trong Phuoc in my hometown near our house.

The Army had blocked all roads leading to Hue city. Martial Law was in effect in this old royal capital and only authorized personnel were allowed to travel. Therefore, I had to wear my Navy uniform in order to visit my wife and our newborn baby.

While we were conversing in the recovery room inside the hospital, we heard running steps outside. Suddenly, the unlocked door was pushed opened and to our surprise, we saw a young man with blood running down on his face, rushing into the room. He begged me to let him hide under the bed because soldiers were chasing after him. Without thinking, I accepted his desperate request, then showed him the way, and told him to stay down there. After checking to make sure of the young man could not be seen, I stepped out and stood in front of the door. A moment later, a group of soldiers with weapons in their hands was running toward me. As soon as the non-commissioned officer saw the rank on my shoulders, he saluted and politely asked me if I saw young students running by. I said, " Yes," then pointed to the rear of the hospital. The NCO saluted again, thanked me, and led his soldiers toward the other side of the building. I realized that my reaction was based on what my mother had taught me when I was young; to assist helpless and innocent people whenever possible.

The young student who had just escaped from the government troupe thanked us for hiding him. I told him to wait for me to check and make sure that it was safe. Then we both shook hand and he left the room to join his other friends.

My dog Da continued to live with my parents in Hue city when I transferred to Danang and brought my family along. Later, my father told me that Da died of natural causes.

While in Danang in the summer of 1965, I got another dog from a Navy friend for my eldest daughter, Thanh Nhan. We named him "Mina." This dog also looked like the other dogs with brown hair and was very cute. During this time, I was on special missions that required me to be away from home often and I rarely had time to notice that Mina had grown up through the time. Her hair became darker and her curling tail made her look like more a Vietnamese dog than my previous ones.

Minh had gone to Hue to stay with my parents and been ready for another child. At this time, the political situation of the country became a big problem for the government to handle. I waited for my wife to give birth to our baby, and then I would arrange to go home and to bring both mother and child back to Danang.

The Buddhist movement in the center of Vietnam had created a far more serious crisis than any other movement in previous times. The protest that the Monks and their followers had carried out day after day in the streets of Danang and Hue increased the instability of the local government. Consequently, the local authority requested assistance from the Central government in Saigon. The government, led by military generals decided to send troops to take charge and control the unlawful protests in those cities. Martial law was in place again. Military personnel barricaded Highway 1, which connected Hue and Danang.

Upon arriving in Danang from my mission, I returned home and found out that Minh had given birth to my second son three days before. Both mother and child were fine. They were waiting for me to find a way to bring them back to Danang by sea because there was no other land route except for the barricaded Highway 1 between Hue and Danang. I radioed to my Navy friend who was the Commanding officer of the Coastal Junk force in Thuan An and asked if he could send a truck to pickup my family and bring them to his base. After making that arrangement, I requested permission to go aboard a Coastal Security Service Swift boat that was on a mission nearby to pick up Minh and my boy. Due to the urgent and very special situation, my superior kindly approved my request and on a sunny day in late March 1966, the Navy boat brought my family back to Danang while the sea was very calm. Minh and Dung, my newborn son, never forgot the journey that they had endured during the national crisis in 1966 that eventually led the country to select a new President.

My dog Mina later lived with my parents in Hue when I kept moving due to my assignment and Minh was too busy with our four young children. We had no spare time to take care of Mina in that kind of situation.

Then, in the Lunar New Year day of the year of Monkey, the Viet Cong violated the military cease-fire agreement between Allied forces and the Communist. There was a nation-wide attack carried out by the North Vietnamese communists to all cities and provinces of South Vietnam including the Hue metropolitan area. That cease-fire violation was later known as the "Tet Offensive."

I had two weeks of vacation and brought my five-member family home to celebrate Tet with our folks. I did not know that on the day of the New Year, I would have to hide underground for almost 28 days in different hidden places in my parents' house, surrounded by the Viet Cong. They had occupied the area from the first day of the Lunar year. Each time I heard the barking of my dog Mina, I jumped immediately into my hidden reserve nearby. I knew that the enemy soldiers were about to search this neighborhood. They were looking for young men, South Vietnamese officers, and the government employees. Mina disliked the Viet Cong a lot, he barked at them and ran away when they tried to catch him. They wanted very much to kill the barking dog. Sometimes Mina did not show up until they had left at nightfall. Thanks to my Mina, I survived through that desperate and hopeless time of the Tet offensive until the South Vietnamese Rangers liberated our town. I was able to return to my base in Danang without my family, after 28 long days in the hidden places.

In 1972, I again received my new assignment to the Vietnamese National Military Academy (VNMA) in Dalat, a resort city located in the highland of Central Vietnam, a few months after our youngest daughter Thanh Tam was born. The VNMA had just become the only Military Academy for career officers from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. After I had moved my family to the new officer quarter in Dalat, we decided to get a German shepherd like Berna, my half brother's dog that I had taken care of when I was in high school at Hue. We named him as Taboo, like the name of a kind of perfume. Taboo was almost as big Berna and he brought back sweet memories of my childhood, while she was running behind my military jeep, in the cool green meadow of the plateau.

Later in that year, I bought a Japanese puppy for Thanh Nhan, our eldest daughter. She named him SuBa. This puppy was so cute and playful and liked to eat rice instead of dog food. One day my mischievous second daughter, Thanh Trang, mixed rice, soy sauce, and red pepper and fed it to him when we were not looking. The red pepper burned the poor puppy's tongue and she cried as she ran around the house looking for water.

Taboo and SuBa became good friends and preferred to play with each other. They were our family dogs until I transferred back to the Navy in 1973. We gave them away to our close friends at the Military Academy.

The fall of South Vietnam on the last day of April 1975 caused over a million South Vietnamese to flee their homeland and seek refuge in the free countries around the world, notably in America. My situation was the same. I stayed until the last minute to defend my base, then finally took half of my family with me and boarded the last fishing trawler to sail out to the sea in search for freedom. I had to leave my other four older children behind in Hue with my parents.
We were rescued at the South China sea by the United States Navy ship on the first birthday of my youngest son Phuc, then we were transported to Subic bay in Philippines.

I also left behind Mina, my old dog who saved my life during the Tet offensive but I could not save his. In the following years, I learned that he continued to chase after the Viet Cong who now occupied the suffering country. One day, I received the sad news that they eventually killed my faithful dog ...

We settled in Arlington, Virginia after about three months moving from refugee camps on Wake Island and in California. We received help from my former United States Advisor at the Military Academy in Dalat who sponsored my family with his church. Eventually, Minh, the four younger children, and I moved to an old 5-bedroom home to prepare for the arrival of our four oldest children from Vietnam after eight and a half years of separation.

On the 15th birthday of my third daughter, Thanh Nha, I bought her a miniature schnauzer that she named Gordy. He was like a fox. He jumped very high and ran fast, and he was very nice with kids. Thanh Nha loved Gordy and took very good care of him. She let Gordy sleep in the bed with her and saved candy and crackers for him all the time. From time to time, Nha returned from school on the school bus, she saw Gordy anxiously waiting by the bus stop near our house. We used to keep him in the fenced back yard, but he jumped over the fence occasionally when he heard the voices of kids playing outside.

It was on a Sunday afternoon, I was watching football in the living room. Suddenly I heard Nha cry very loud from the front yard, I turned off the TV set and hurried out to see what was happening to my daughter. She was sobbing and trying to tell me that a car going down the winding road in front of our house had hit and killed Gordy. The old lady who drove the car was apologizing and very sad about the accident. It seemed that Gordy was running across the street when the car was going downhill and she could not stop it in time. That was a second time that I lost a family dog by a car accident. A truck also killed "Do," my first dog.

Thanh Nha was very upset over losing her dog and she missed Gordy so much. I wanted to find another dog for her to replace Gordy hoping that Nha might forget him. I kept my eyes on the bulletin board in the Giant Food store where I worked. I noticed that there was a note from a family who wanted to give away their golden retriever because they planned to move into an apartment that did not allow pets. They had just posted the notice two days before Christmas. It was snowing very steady outside. The store was so busy and I could not leave early, so I called the owner of the dog. I asked her if I could have the dog and would come to pick it up as soon as I finished my shift at eight o'clock that night.

When I took this beautiful dog home, everybody was waiting to see the one-year-old golden retriever. She had a light brown hair, her tail was long, and full of fur like a broom. Her eyes were black and wet and she looked so innocent. Thanh Nha was happy because she already knew this was her personal dog. When Nha held her with both arms, the dog leaned her head to Nha's face. We let her run in the snow in the back yard. She looked like a polar bear under the snow flurries falling on her fur. We decided to name her Bear and she was welcome as the next dog of the Le family. In fact, she brought us joy and blessing because about three months later, I received the good news. My eldest children in Vietnam were about to get authorization papers and with the approval of United States of America, the Vietnam government decided to allow my children to reunite with their parents and younger siblings in America.

The big day had come after more than eight and a half years of a split family. We celebrated heartily and Bear was the central figure for everybody. They hugged her, gave her all kinds of food to eat.

Time went by and Bear grew up quickly; she witnessed the happiness and the sadness of my family who struggled to live in a strange land. Bear loved to play with everyone, young or old and at anytime. When I went out to the back yard, I saw Bear waiting for me with either a rock or a tennis ball in her mouth. She dropped the ball in front of me and when I threw it away, she quickly ran and retrieved that ball back to me, jumping around playfully. So many times, I took pictures of Bear jumping up high to catch the tennis ball in the air, I was so proud to show those pictures to my guests on their visits with my family. Bear became pregnant twice and gave birth to 12 puppies, but we did not keep any at all, just gave them away to our friends. After the second pregnancy, I decided to get her spayed so she would not be able to get pregnant anymore.

There were so many memories of Bear and me, perhaps too many souvenirs in seventeen years together day after day. We played in the nearby park when it was sunny and hot or in the back yard when family had cookouts. We built snowmen many times and watched Bear destroy them in the wintry days of winter or we chased one another in our front yard to the small creek next to our house. I loved this dog with all my heart. As I had said before, Bear was Thanh Nha's dog but after Nha graduated from high school and attended the College of William and Mary, I became Bear's master. I took care of her ever since. She used to wait for me at the fence and greeted me by wagging her long tail. She also made happy noises that helped me forget all the stress of my long working day at the supermarket. In her mouth was a tennis ball and she looked at me as though to invite her master to play ball.

Then in March 1997, I decided to take early retirement from my current job after almost 22 years of hard work. I wanted to do the things that I had not done during my entire career, back home and here, in the United States of America. It was to devote the rest of my life to writing memoirs and poetry. I wished to let the whole world know of the real experiences of a sailor who fought the last war in Vietnam. With the recent advance of the information technology, the computer would be able to assist me in recording the truth about this war. The sad ending had prompted the exodus of my people and resulted in thousands of boat people dying on their journey for freedom at sea.

My children had grown up and moved out, only Minh and I lived together with our dog, Bear. This was a wonderful time for us. Every morning, when the sun had just risen above oak trees in front of my house, Bear and I would start our routine exercises. We ran side by side along the street in our neighborhood for an hour then play throw and fetch with a tennis ball for about 15 minutes before I got tired and had to stop. I had high blood pressure so I could not overdo anything as directed by my family doctor. Bear was getting old too, her arthritis prevented her from jumping as high as she used to.

In late spring of 1998, Minh and I were ready to drive to the airport on the trip to Monterey, California to visit my Navy son, Hung, and his family. Bear, who was almost 18 years old now, seemed to know that this was the last time she would see us. She wanted to stay in the house and did not wish to come out to see us leave as she used to. It was a beautiful morning on a warm and sunny day. The wind blew softly from the west, and Bear sat down in her place looking at us with her tired and sad eyes. This was the last time I hugged her. On a day when the rain covered the sky of the small coastal town in Monterey, California, I sat comfortably on a couch reading a novel in my son's house. The telephone rang and Minh picked it up. Her voice sounded weaker and weaker with emotion. On the other line was Thanh Trang, our second daughter who lived near my house in Virginia. She informed us that Bear had died that morning.

My heart was full of sorrow; I had just lost my dearest family dog, the eighth dog in my life. I was so sad that I did not want to have another dog again. Bear was my last dog because I already knew that for me, there would never be another dog like Bear. No dog would ever be able to replace "Bear" in my heart!