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This is the true story of the most amazing dog I've ever known. Yes, I admit I'm prejudiced because I love her so much, but I'm not alone in making this claim. Just about everybody who has ever met her says she's unique; they always tell me that they've never even heard of a pup like her. This dog has been written about and talked about by many people; part of her inspirational story was even published as an article in Good Housekeeping magazine, but there is still a lot left to tell. This little dog has changed a lot of lives, human as well as animal lives. Beginning with mine. Especially mine.
My name is Philip Gonzalez. I was born forty-five years ago in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, but I was brought to New York when I was only seven months old, and I never went back. All my life has been lived near the Atlantic Ocean, first in Far Rockaway and now in another beach community in Long Island. We were a large family of children. First came the three boys, of whom I was the youngest. Jose, Peter, then me, then my three sisters, Nancy and the twins, Maria and Marguerita.
We were a close family, even though there was thirteen years' difference in ages between the oldest, Jose, and the youngest, the twins. We did a lot of things together as a family. Because we lived near the ocean, we spent a lot of time at the beach all summer, but we also went to street fairs and carnivals, watched the fireworks together on the Fourth of July, and planned picnics and cookouts. Since all six of us brothers and sisters had a lot of friends, our apartment was usually overflowing withkids of all ages.
I would definitely call my childhood a happy one. I was an active boy, and loved sports, especially the ball games the neighborhood boys played in the streetsstickball and handballbut I also played racquetball and paddleball on courts. I was too small and lightweight for football, but I always enjoyed watching it.
When I was nineteen, I went into the service, joining the U.S. Army. I served in Vietnam, and yes, I saw combat, but I don't like to talk about it. It was a dark episode in my life, one that I would much rather not remember. Also, my mother died in 1971, while I was in 'Nam, and one of my brothers died suddenly the year before, so that was another reason to try to forget that sorrowful time.
How I came to ship out to 'Nam is a strange chapter in my life. Because I volunteered for the service without waiting to be drafted, I had my choice of serving in Vietnam or Germany. I didn't have a death wish, so naturally I opted for Germany.
I did my basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey and had started on AIT, Advanced Individual Training. My brother Peter came to see me the day before my regiment was to go out on bivouac. It was visitors' day at the camp, and Peter brought along Jose's little daughter, Cindy, our niece. We had a good time together, but Peter appeared to be upset at the thought that I might be ordered to 'Nam.
"No way, man," I assured him, "I'm going to Germany. Guaranteed."
Peter shook his head. "I don't like it. If they send you to 'Nam, I'm gonna tell them to take me instead."
I was touched at Peter's concern and his affection. The two of us were closer together in age than I was with any of my other siblings, so there was an especially strong bond between us. Peter was my closest friend in the world, and it made me feel good to think he felt the same way about me.
The next day we went out on bivouac, sleeping in tents in the woods and eating field rations. That night I was walking through the woods to my tent, when I stumbled over something. It was a freshly dug grave. Not a real grave, of course, but a hole in the ground some of the guys had dug for a gag. They'd erected a make-believe headstone on it that read rest in peace, g.i. joe. Even though I recognized it for a joke, the "grave" made me uneasy.
When I got to my tent, something dark and large leaped out at me, scaring me half to death. It was a toad, a really huge one. It shouldn't have startled me, because there's nothing uncommon about a toad in the woods, but remember, I was a city boy who'd never seen one up close.
As I tried to go to sleep that night, I could hear thunder and see lightning for hours. The whole night struck me as pretty creepyfirst the grave, then the toad, and afterward, the storm. Like a Halloween night. I didn't close my eyes until very late, and I slept for only a few hours.
When I woke up the next morning, a lieutenant was walking down the line of tents, yelling, "Peter Gonzalez! Who's Peter Gonzalez? Is there a Peter Gonzalez here?"
"My name is Philip Gonzalez," I called out. "And I have a brother named Peter."
"Then it's gotta be you. Your brother died last night." Just like that. No warning, no preamble, no sympathy.
I went into shock. Peter? Dead? How was this possible? "H-how? Wh-what happened?" I could only stammer.
"Automobile accident. Better get back to the base. You're going home for the funeral."
I handed over my rifle and climbed into a jeep, back to Fort Dix. I changed into my class A's, my best uniform, and headed for Far Rockaway on the bus. I didn't stop to call home, because if I had, I would have missed the next bus. As it was, I made it only by a whisker. I was so numb I wasn't even thinking. I'd seen Peter only yesterday, alive and well, and now he was dead! It didn't make sense. What if he'd died on the way home from the army base? I'd feel guilty about that all my life. Had there been an auto accident? And what about little Cindy? Had she been injured? All the way home, those questions preyed on my mind.
When I got home I discovered that Peter had not died in an accident. He'd passed away with a sudden heart attack, although he was very young. It was a sad day for the Gonzalez family when we buried Peter. And my mother didn't outlive him for long. She died the following year.
When I returned to Fort Dix, I volunteered for Vietnam. I can't explain why; it was just something I felt I had to do. Probably I had lost interest in my own life; maybe I'd even developed that death wish I hadn't had earlier. But I know that I felt guilty about being alive when Peter was dead.
But the strangeness didn't end there. At Thanksgiving, they shipped us out, destination Vietnam. Not on a ship, but on a military transport plane. They call them Military Airlift Command, or MAC, flights. On the way to 'Nam, we made a landing at Anchorage, to refuel and to pick up four more passengers. The MAC flight was completely filled, and the four new guys outranked us, so three of my buddies and I were bumped and left behind on the ground to wait for the next transport. We were wearing jungle fatigues, and it gets pretty damn cold in Anchorage in November, so as you can imagine we weren't too happy about the bumping, and we grumbled and complained about it between chattering teeth.
Our plane took off without us, and as we stood on the tarmac watching it go, the aircraft made a sudden veer and headed straight for the earth, where it crashed. A fireball erupted, and between the crash and the flames every life on board was lost. By a quirk of fate, just one of those things, the only men spared were the four of us left behind on the ground.
The army hustled us onto a plane and flew us to Elmendorph Air Force Base without even letting us call home to tell our folks we were alive. The authorities decided to contain the tragic story until they could release the news in the most efficient and least traumatic way for the next of kin. It wasn't until we landed in Japan that I was allowed to send my mother a postcard, saying, "I'm alive. I wasn't on the plane that crashed." Not even a phone call; they only authorized a postcard. Up until the moment she received my card, my mother believed I was dead, and I'm sure that the shock of that, combined with my brother Peter's recent death, helped to kill her.
One thing, though, came out of that terrible experience. I stopped being afraid of going into combat. I figured that if God had wanted to take me, he'd had plenty of opportunities already and he'd passed them up. So maybe he was saving me for something. What I never suspected was the strange destiny he was saving me for.
My experience with animals wasn't very wide or deep, but it started early. I was nine years old, walking down the street one day, when an older boy I knew slightly from the neighborhood stopped me and said, "Here, you want this?"
He put something warm and furry into my hand, and when I looked down, it was the tiniest kitten I had ever seen in my life, not much more than newborn. I took her home, but nobody except me believed that she would survive. I fed that kitten with milk in an eyedropper night and day, and she surprised us all by growing up. I named her Sylvia, and for years I fed her and changed her litter, but to tell the truth, she was the family cat, never particularly mine.