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A Dog’s Life In the Foreign Service

ISSUE:  Autumn 1979

The problem of dependents is a chronic occupational hazard of families of the U. S. Foreign Service. In some countries superior educational facilities for children, excellent doctors, and good dentists can be found. In more countries all three necessities are in short supply—sometimes nonexistent. Then there is the psychological effect upon children of changes from one nation to another. Our son was in school in five foreign countries in seven years. Foreign Service children who psychologically survive their abnormal ways of life benefit from it in many ways, but they may also suffer in the process. So do household pets.

Consider, for example, our dog Thor, a Boxer of distinguished ancestry whom we acquired as a tiny puppy in Norway. His carefree early life gave him no inkling of what awaited him in his travels with us, but his experiences on our journey from our assignment in Oslo to a new one in Trieste appropriately launched him on a canine Foreign Service career. His ordeals by train, gondola, and Venetian pigeon were only one episode in the saga of a remarkable animal who was less able than we to understand sudden and often unpleasant changes in life-style. Being a dog, his love for his family transcended his bewilderment and discomforts, and he accepted both uncomplainingly. Perhaps, being a Norwegian by birth, he carried on in canine fashion the Peer Gynt tradition of wanderlust.

His first international travel occurred in midwinter at a time, 1947, when Europe was carefully conserving its very short supply of fuel. At the frontier with Sweden, we rescued him from a frigid baggage car and smuggled him into our compartment, where, for the rest of our journey through Europe, he shared our small son’s berth. Two days later, in a very cold railway station restaurant in Milan, he and we discovered the inaccuracy of the Italian witticism that the three coldest places in Italy are churches, latrines, and garages. From the ice-like surface of the marble floor of the restaurant he was taken to an unheated train where our shivering dog was held on my wife’s lap, covered by a spare fur coat in an effort to conceal him from the censorious eye of the train attendant. That puzzled functionary would from time to time direct a quizzical glance at the trembling fur garment which my wife clutched with both hands. Whether the attendant restrained his curiosity from a modest reluctance to inquire about a bulge which might have foretold a blessed event in the American family, or for some other reason, the dog continued in my wife’s embrace, and we finally arrived in Venice, where we waited for several hours for the train to Trieste.

In Venice, our normally good-natured dog was driven close to the point of emotional exhaustion. He had borne uncomplainingly three days of vibrating train floors and several hours of very cold marble flooring at Milan; our presence had given him fortitude. The change from vibration to the slow roll of the gondola in Venice was a strain, but the coup de grace came in the Piazza San Marco where we arrived just as the pigeons were sweeping in to be fed. The dog’s terror as the birds surrounded him was piteous to behold. He finally collapsed at our feet in a restaurant and ignored the food we offered him. The returning gondola ride and the cold train to Trieste completed his demoralization, and when we arrived at our hotel in Trieste, he retired to a corner of the room and slept around the clock.

After sleeping off the trauma of the train journey, Thor quickly adapted to Trieste with no visible symptoms of cultural shock. He seemed disdainful of the hungry, unattractive mongrels which comprised most of the canine population of Trieste, and he shared the delight of the human members of his family with the lovely gardens surrounding the house which they occupied, a house whose overdecorated exterior, in a style my wife described as decadent Franz Josef, quickly earned it the appellation of Villa Fantastica. There, while we humans coped with the tumultuous and sometimes hazardous events which characterized life in Trieste in the late 1940’s, our dog had a sheltered existence and thrived on an Italian diet which was much preferred to Norwegian whale meat.

When we were transferred from Trieste to London, we made the journey by car with our dog. Upon arrival by boat at the English Channel port, he was removed from the vessel in the custody of a licensed and impressively uniformed official and taken to a quarantine kennel some 30 miles from London. There he remained for six months in accordance with the policy of protecting the British public against rabies, an understandable objective for an overcrowded island nation but one which has tormented thousands of animals lovers and their pets. Thor survived the ordeal reasonably well. He was a favorite of the girls tending the kennels, who wore a very tough exterior in their relations with people but were tender and affectionate with their animal charges. We visited Thor each week and eventually took him home, where he was as joyful to be with us as we were to have him.

On that sojourn in London we lived near Hyde Park, which animals seemed to enjoy as much as human visitors. There our dog would exercise daily and glory in the abundant evidence of the presence of other canine visitors. He was a beautiful animal, and his pleasant recreation and the admiring attention of passers-by must have been some compensation for his six months of kennel imprisonment.

When we were transferred to Singapore, our canine dependent again became a problem. But London has everything, including efficient services to transfer animals to and from England. We retained one, which contracted for the dog to travel aboard an English freight ship to Singapore. As Singapore also had a quarantine on animals, the ship’s owners had to agree that the dog would not be permitted to leave the ship at ports visited en route. We didn’t see him for two months, but when we arrived in Singapore, we learned that he had been an able “advance man.” His ship had called at Singapore a week before and he had been ensconced in the consulate residence. The public affairs officer of the consulate had sensed that he might have public relations value. Two days before my wife and I arrived, Singapore’s leading English language newspaper carried a front-page story captioned “New American Consul-General’s Dog Arrives First,” with an excellent picture of our photogenic dog and a well-written human interest account of his journey from London by ship. We never learned the details of the trip, but we were told that Thor shared the cabin (and bed) of the ship’s dour chief engineer and was the spoiled darling of the entire ship’s company. He must have captivated the ship’s cook because he had gained five pounds since we last saw him.

In Singapore Thor was exposed to the sharp cleavage between the two principal ethnic elements of the population which constituted the major internal political problem of Malaysia. Our Chinese cook spoiled the dog, and despite our admonitions, stuffed him with rice and culinary delicacies. Our Malay servants, who were Muslim and respected the Islamic taboo against dogs, either avoided contact with him or mistreated him, to his surprise and bewilderment. He carried through his life a bent ear presumably damaged by a blow from one of our gardeners whose religious zeal and determination to avoid contamination accentuated the lack of affection for animal pets which seems prevalent in more primitive parts of the world.

When we were ordered from Singapore to duty in Washington, the transport of our dog again became a problem. My imaginative public affairs officer and the United States Navy came to the rescue. In late 1953 Singapore was a port of call for squadrons of American destroyers headed home from duty in the Korean War. A squadron arrived while Thor’s travel plans were being considered. As usual we entertained its personnel. At a party it was learned that the squadron commander’s dog, adopted in Korea and made the squadron’s mascot, had died. A successor was being sought. My officer informed the commander that Thor was looking for transportation, and he readily extended an invitation for the dog to join his command. We approved the arrangement, turned over Thor to a junior lieutenant, and agreed to retrieve him when the destroyers arrived in Norfolk. When we next saw him, it would be the result of a truly extraordinary coincidence.

On a cold winter day, more than a month later, my wife and I drove to the Norfolk naval base. I explained to the Marine guard at the main gate that we had come to collect a dog; I supplied further details upon seeing his look of incredulity. We were directed to the destroyer squadron, which was tied up alongside a large supply ship whose gangplank provided the only land access to the destroyers. We crossed the deck of the supply ship and another gangplank to the deck of the flagship of the squadron, where we met the young officer to whom we had entrusted our dog. He told us that Thor was well and happy and was unquestionably the most popular member of the crew. He excused himself to find the dog and bring him to us.

We sipped coffee in the wardroom and waited. Nearly a half hour had passed when a confused and embarrassed young officer returned to say he couldn’t find our dog.”I’ve searched all three destroyers,” he said.”He was in the wardroom late last night. No one has seen him this morning and he’s not on any of the squadron’s ships.” He added that the dog had not been seen on the adjacent supply ship or by guards at the navy yard gates.”I have just broadcast a description of Thor over the base radio station. Maybe someone in the base has seen him.” He promised to continue the search, and we said we’d return to the destroyer later in the day.

When we returned in late afternoon, our young officer friend met us with a smile.”We found him,” he said.”I’ll bring him to you in the wardroom.” A few minutes later Thor bounded into the room and almost demolished us with his demonstration of affection. The officer then related the amazing coincidence that enabled the dog to be found.

Shortly after the radio broadcast about the lost dog, an officer on a ship in another part of the base ended his duty and was on his way to his room for a nap. He passed the wardroom and decided to have a cup of coffee. While drinking it, he turned on a television set which was displaying a weekly 15-minute local program in which lost dogs of good quality were paraded before the television camera in the hope that their owners would recognize and thus recover them. On the screen appeared a Boxer with a white blaze on his chest. The watching officer remembered that a few minutes earlier the ship’s radio had announced that Destroyer 103 on the base had lost a similar dog. He phoned the destroyer, a car was sent to the television station, and Thor was found. The mystery of how he had left the destroyer unseen, left the base unseen, and made his way into the city of Norfolk was never solved. We marveled at the incredible coincidence that had returned our dog to us and shared the joys of our reunion with him. But many days passed before he condescended to enjoy the normal dog’s diet that we gave him; apparently he had been living on steak and roast beef during his tour of duty in the navy, and the dietary change to civilian life was not to his liking.

For the next two years while I was trying to adapt to the State Department, Thor, the world traveler, was becoming accustomed to the sights and smells of our Washington home. It was located in Georgetown, not far from Rock Creek Park, where, in those days, one could walk his dog without being assaulted. After I retired and we went to live in Rome, Thor again entered foreign service. In Rome we lived at the foot of the Palatine Hill and Thor’s favorite exercise area was the Circus Maximus. A close second were the Etruscan tombs in the plains not far from Rome which my wife and I liked to explore on weekends, with Thor as our advance guard to scare away the tarantulas. As our acquaintance with antiquity there and elsewhere in Italy increased, so did our dog’s.

We moved to London after two years in Rome. Again, an important decision regarding our canine dependent was required. Should we inflict another six months in quarantine upon him? We finally decided to do so not only because we wanted to keep him but because we honestly believed he would rather endure the ordeal than be separated from us. The bond between us and our dog had become very strong; we believed he would want the family ties to be preserved. So, again, when we arrived in England, he went off to the kennels.

As before, we visited him weekly until we left for a trip to the United States. We were away only three weeks, but when we returned and made our first visit to the kennels the kennel manager told us that Thor had an illness which had baffled the visiting veterinarian.”Ten days ago he stopped eating,” he said, “but no symptoms of illness can be found.” We went to his stall. When the dog heard our voices, he tried to greet us as he had in the past by rearing up on his hind legs and pawing at the door with his forefeet. He was too weak to make the effort; the beautifully proportioned, healthy animal that we had left was hardly able to stand. He was pathetically glad to see us and licked our hands and my wife’s face when she took him in her arms. She said, “I know what’s wrong with Thor. We’re coming back this afternoon with his cure.” On the way home she purchased a chicken and a rabbit, which our Italian cook combined in a rich stew. From my office I phoned the veterinarian to inquire about the dog’s condition. “Is it possible,” I asked, “that he stopped eating because he missed us?” “You mean he was pining away for you. Impossible,” was the reply. But three hours later we were again with the dog, watching him devour a generous portion of the stew with tail wagging vigorously to recognize our presence. Every day for the next week we repeated the cure; by then he was nearly at normal weight with a normal appetite.

Upon his release from quarantine, Thor again became a temporary resident of London and an habitue of Hyde Park. He returned to the United States with us by ship and resumed his acquaintence with Rock Creek Park. By then he was 13 years of age and beginning to deteriorate physically. One night he went to sleep peacefully and never awoke. Our sense of loss was acute. Thor had traveled extensively with us and accepted uncomplainingly the adversities of a nomadic life. He was much loved, and he knew it and returned the love. He left a void in our lives which was never quite filled.


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