A few months ago I entered a contest. A writing contest. The rules were quite simple. Owl Canyon Press (a book publishing company) would put up the prize money ($1,000 to first, $750 to second, $500 to third) and provide the first and last paragraphs of a story to be written by us. One through twenty. It was up to us to fill in the blanks. Paragraphs 2–19 were to be entirely made up on our own.
At first, I thought it would be easy. I think I am a decent writer (nothing great by any means), so I thought I could come up with something in no time. But, as I began to write, I felt a transformation take place. I began to care about every sentence. Every word had to be perfect. If I wanted to win, I had to be. I was certain I’d be going up against legit authors, those who make a living writing, so it became more of an obsession to write the best story I had ever written. Some nights I could finish two or three paragraphs and be satisfied. Other nights I would struggle to come up with a sentence I liked.
At the end of it all, after putting weeks into writing, I submitted my story. I truly felt that I had a chance to win. Not just make the money, but win. Just like when I play poker, I play to win. I wanted to win, for the money, sure, but I became motivated by not half-assing this contest and putting everything I had into this story.
I used my daily experience as a funeral director to my advantage. After all, once you read the first paragraph (again, given to us by Owl Canyon Press), you’ll read why I became so attached instantly. This story was perfect for me. I gave it everything I had. I was proud of this story, and even though I did not win, I feel like it is the best thing I have ever written. Seriously. Ever.
I really wanted to win. I did not, however. And now that the contest results have been announced, I can release my story to the public. I hope you feel everything that I felt while reading this and understand my plight. I put everything I had into this story, and even though I came away with nothing monetarily; I came away with a piece of work I can truly say is my best ever.
I give you, “Man’s Best Friend Laid to Rest: All War Dogs Go to Heaven.”
Paragraph #1 – It was an odd sized casket, too small for a man, too big for a child. A flag was draped over it, a smallish one. It was carried by four men in uniform, though it was hard to tell for sure from a distance what uniform it was, or even if they were all men. There wasn’t room for the usual six pallbearers due to the small size of the casket since it would have made for a comical service to have all six jammed together, shoulder-to-shoulder, crowding around an under-sized coffin. So, the extra pallbearers were in the ranks of many others in uniform standing beside a small open grave. The officiant wore a robe instead of a uniform and must have said something because there was a long silence, then a burst of laughter.
Paragraph #2 – After the laughter had subsided, the tears began to flow as free as an American river. The tears certainly ran through. Like a true good dog, the canine would get its just due. The casket in question contained the remains of the most courageous dog the military has seen in a long time. There was not a dry eye in sight after the officiant had laid the treats onto the casket, calling for one more command: To rest easy. This dog had, after all, truly earned it.
Paragraph #3 – Veteran canines are revered in such high honor while in the military that they always hold their rank one spot above their handler. It has been said that this is the best way to repay them for their service. For most dogs, being obedient comes off naturally. It just seems like the way of the world. But to be a militarized canine, that is the bravest of them all. As their partner in war goes, they go with. To be a man, woman, young adolescent fresh out of high school or a wily, twenty-year veteran, compares not, when it comes to blindly following commands at the drop of a hat. Or a treat, rather. The canine will always follow its orders. Man’s best friend, truly.
Paragraph #4 – In scanning the audience, one could see just what the canine meant to everyone. The pallbearers stood aside, abrupt, and almost as if they were now taking commands from the dog itself. They were not going to take this honor lightly. Their faces stoic and solemn, the pallbearers had the highest honor today, by leading their friend one last time. Only this time, it was towards Heaven, the biggest treat of them all. If all dogs do go to Heaven, then God would be smiling with His new best friend by His side.
Paragraph #5 – This was one pup that was loyal until the end. He had been through it all; abandoned as a newborn, who just so happened to have been seen by a passing colonel whose unit needed a dog to be their new multi-purpose Special Operations Canine. The colonel had always thought that people who came from broken homes or had been given up on in life made the best recruits, being as old-school as they come. Whatever is given, is taught, and taken during training. The tough-as-nails colonel knew giving this young pup the opportunity would be like breeding new life into this animal, and his Special Operations Canine unit. The colonel could mold anyone if they survived his training, and this pup would be put through the ringer, enduring “Hell Week,” but for dogs. In addition to the rough beginning of life and training, this dog had been through two separate tours of the Middle East, becoming victorious from seeking out hidden bombs to finding wounded soldiers to alerting a current Special Forces team what exactly lay ahead of them. This once homeless puppy had saved numerous American lives, all while finding itself a home for life. The colonel could not have been ornerier on the surface, but inside, he could not have been prouder, as he stood at attention towards the odd, homemade casket.
Paragraph #6 – Too small for a man, too big for a child. The casket that lay before the tearful guests had been created out of fresh pine, painted to be that of a doghouse. It had this sense of smell that the pup itself would have surely noticed several hundred feet away. Anyone can close their eyes and have their sense of smell tell them what pine is. You just know. The odd casket may have been just that, odd, but its contents were anything but. The homemade casket deserves recognition because of its holding. The military dog that lay inside deserved a once-in-a-lifetime casket for being a once-in-a-lifetime service canine. While the dimensions and smell of the casket were noticed, it is the dog’s valor that will forever be remembered. The dynastic implications of being a Special Operations Canine are never forgotten. They are a dynasty, after all.
Paragraph #7 – Military dogs have been around for centuries. In fact, war dogs were commonly used just as they are today, in guard form. It has been said that Napoleon himself used guard dogs at the gates of Alexandria. He believed in trying to ward off intruders by any means necessary. You can imagine the shock and look of terror on a would-be thief who comes across a guard dog in today’s world. Now try and imagine the surprise of a soldier encountering a trained guard dog at the gates of Alexandria back in the early 1800’s. There is just no defense for a canine ready to mingle with an unsuspecting soldier.
Paragraph #8 – Outside of being Egyptian guard dogs for Napoleon, the canines were also kept for morale. It is one thing to use a highly skilled and trained dog for combat use, but it is entirely another thing to use one for friendship. That in of itself goes a long way during the lonely doldrums of war. The saying of dogs being “man’s best friend” is cliché for a reason: because it is true. As the military personnel standing forthright for their fallen war dog can attest to, the bond between human and canine is a special one. Just by looking about the field of grass and tears, each blade swaying as if it too, is feeling the crying emotions being strewn about. The loyalty a dog shows its handler is unbreakable. The fact that there is a military burial for a canine showcases that unconditional love.
Paragraph #9 – It is not often a military burial is for a dog. Military honors for people are of the utmost respectful. It is a sign of being laid to rest, not just with dignity, but proof that one literally died for their country. Usually, in the American way of military honors being held for the deceased, a few things take place. Number one, the branch of military service that one served in will send two uniformed officers to do the unfolding and folding of the American flag (Marines, Navy, Army, etc.). Number two, a gun volley follows, commonly from a local post branch of veterans and their rifles. After the shots have been fired into the sky, “Taps” is played through a bugle, again, by a veteran. The most tearful portion of military honors is during the bugle playing of the 24-note song, “Taps.” It is impossible to quantify just how powerful it is in person. Lastly, the flag is then folded into a triangle, by the two aforementioned officers, who present the flag to the decedent’s next of kin. In most cases, a wife or husband is the first in line to receive the flag. In this instance, for the fallen war dog, the colonel received the flag.
Paragraph #10 – Outside of the colonel not shedding a tear, everyone in plain sight could be seen with a wet face. If only this war dog had seen the faces of the bereaved. Dogs are known to lick the faces of their owners when they cry. Yes, it is in some ways the taste of the tears that get them to do so (incremental salt), but also in other ways it is the fact that they sense sadness. Dogs have but a few means to tend to humans. Canines have their extreme sense of smell, their tongue, and their paws. They use all of these to communicate with humans and show emotion. On this day, however, it is everyone in attendance who is showing their emotion. Once the military honors were completed for the war hero of a dog, the pallbearers even slid a few respectful tears, but never broke character. Upright and still, just as they were drilled to do, but showing emotion, as best they could.
Paragraph #11 – The officiant had given way to anyone else that had wanted to speak, and after a few soldiers had shouted out their favorite memory with the canine to a few laughs, it grew silent suddenly, when the colonel slowly started to make his way towards the casket. The colonel was going to speak. The uniformed pallbearers, still at attention mind you, managed to slowly turn towards the head end of the casket, and bring their hands up to salute their fallen canine comrade. It was after this salute, that they were given orders to be at ease. This was going to be one emotional eulogy.
Paragraph #12 – The colonel began telling the story of how he first found the pup. How he was tough as nails on the dog, and how the Special Operations Canine unit accepted the pup instantly. What started as a basic retelling of a beginning begat the middle of the eulogy, with the colonel asking everyone in attendance to look to their left and then look to their right. The colonel asked everyone rhetorically if they trusted each man and woman among them with their life. The answer was a resounding yes, as everyone nodded in agreeance, because that is what the military breeds: Trust. Honor. Respect. Laying it all on the line for your fellow soldier. The colonel then reminded to everyone that this war dog had laid it all on the line, for each one of them. None of them would have been here today, to honor this canine were it not for its trust. Its honor. Its respect. For mankind and for its Special Operations Canine unit.
Paragraph #13 – The colonel thanked the officiant for his prayers. The colonel thanked the uniformed pallbearers for their time and care in carrying the odd casket. The colonel thanked the Special Operations Canine unit handlers and soldiers. And then, after pausing for a brief second, the colonel swallowed hard, very dutifully and slowly looked towards the casket, and thanked the dog for being his best friend. This was the most powerful moment of the day. The colonel would place his hand over the casket and give it a few pats, as he forced a dry smile.
Paragraph #14 – After taking a few steps away from the wooden casket, the colonel made his way back towards the crowd that awaited him. The soldiers went to give him their condolences along with hugs and pats on the back. Credit to the colonel, as he took it all in stride, merely shaking the hands back and nodding in approval and acceptance. Even through to the end, the colonel never broke who he was. He never let anyone see what he perceived as a weakness. This is who the colonel is, though, and thought it to be of the utmost respect to the canine, to be himself through it all. The colonel had done his part, and the veteran dog had done his.
Paragraph #15 – There were still some parts that the officiant had to complete, however. For this canine committal service, there were still the matters of prayers and a hymn to be sung in unison, by everyone in attendance. First, the robed officiant began to ask for the attendees to bow their heads and place their hands together, not to be folded as normal prayer, but merely on top of one another, as if they had paws themselves. Today’s prayer is going to be that of the dog persuasion. After giving the instructions, the officiant began, “When you are walking about with me on your mind, I am walking in your footsteps, only a foot behind. And when it is time for you to go from that body and be free, remember you are not going, you are coming here. To me.”
Paragraph #16 – A few soldiers could not contain themselves after the prayer was said and burst into tears. The rivers of emotion began to flow yet again. Here, at the makeshift gravesite with grown adults, trained soldiers no less, in tears over a canine. This furthers the proof and steadfast belief that man’s best friend is indeed a dog. The officiant would wipe his own eyes before moving onto the hymn. This time, everyone would be in unison, in singing the hymnal “When We All Get To Heaven.” This hymnal, the officiant explains, is explaining why dogs go to Heaven. The hymn also explains God’s glory and how exactly the now departed war dog is indeed receiving such graces.
Paragraph #17 – About the midpoint of the hymn is when things come back to a head, with everyone who can still muster up the song’s lyrics, “Let us then be true and faithful, trusting, serving every day. Just one glimpse of Him in glory, will the toils of life repay…” Some soldiers just could not go on, sobbing away at their fallen friend. Others nodded to the lyrics, as true as they rang, about their canine friend. The colonel, still as stern as a rock, sang every note. Every line. Towards the end, his lips pursed together as he too, gave a little nod towards the casket. This hymn was the perfect fit for today’s funeral. “I’ll see you soon, buddy,” the colonel was overheard whispering.
Paragraph #18 – The officiant gave his final condolences after the song and thanked everyone once again for attending. He would also thank those in the Special Operations Canine unit for their service, because it was them, who saved the dog as much as the dog saved them. The mere fact of being here in attendance was proof of the effects a war dog can have on a unit. Proof alone that these trained canines can hold together an entire team of soldiers. The officiant trailed off one last time, as he finished with a verse from John 14:2, “In my Father’s house are many mansions… I am going away to prepare a place for you.”
Paragraph #19 – Once the officiant finished his prayer, he stepped down and aside, as the uniformed pallbearers began digging a grave. This was not like normal funerals, in which a grave is already pre-dug by the cemetery or as neat as a rectangle six feet deep to fit a casket. No, nothing about this was normal. But this was as fitting a funeral as could be for a fallen canine. The pallbearers would begin digging as the sun began to set, and orders were given by the colonel to make it a little uneasy, as if it were being dug by the dog himself. The colonel wanted the dog to feel at home, inside his odd, homemade casket. A few soldiers had asked to speak their own prayers as the digging took place, to which the colonel obliged. This was one grave that would be fit for war dog royalty.
Paragraph #20 – The grave wasn’t ready until sunset, so the whole event was rushed and disorganized, except for the very last part. The grave was a massive affair, more of a crater than a grave, and it took until dark to roll the casket down to the bottom. If any prayers were said, they couldn’t be heard over the dull thudding of the clods raining down on the casket far below. It was an odd sized casket, too big for a man, too small for a dream, but just right for a dynasty.