Dog Gone: A Lost Pet's Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home

Dog Gone: A Lost Pet's Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home

by Pauls Toutonghi


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101971017
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 839,056
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

PAULS TOUTONGHI is a first-generation American. He has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, and he has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Virginia Quarterly Review, Granta, Tin House, and numerous other periodicals. He lives in Oregon, where he teaches at Lewis & Clark College.

Read an Excerpt


Here is Virginia Newman Corbett. She will go on to be Fielding Marshall’s mother, and Gonker Marshall’s grandmother, but right now she is seven years old, a little girl in a bright-­red polka-­dot dress and bright-­red patent-­leather shoes. It is 1949. She is in Japan with her parents, and living like a storybook princess.

Here is Lieutenant Colonel William Henry Corbett—­Virginia’s father, my wife’s grandfather—­an officer in the United States Army’s Special Services Unit, based in Yokohama. Colonel Corbett’s job is to approve recreational activities for the soldiers of the American occupation. And so he has to visit—­with his family—­the hotels and restaurants vying for the business of American GIs. Based on these visits, he recommends certain establishments, and removes others from the lists for officer leave.

Here’s how a typical evening went: The car pulled up—a limousine—bearing Virginia and her parents. The driver opened the door, and the Corbetts stepped out of the vehicle, often onto a red strip of carpet. The staff of the hotel had already assembled in a receiving line; they wore their finest ceremonial dress. The Corbett family then proceeded down that line like royalty—­greeting each member of the staff, receiving formal bow after formal bow. Then they went to the central dining room, where they had a many-­course meal. There was often a geisha standing near the table who had the sole responsibility of keeping little Virginia happy. Bright silk kimonos, amaranth lipstick, white facial powder, obsidian hair. An intricacy of manners and service.

At the end of these meals, a finger bowl would be put in front of Virginia, a little silver container with warm fragrant water in it—­and a white chrysanthemum floating on its surface. She’d dip her fingertips into the bowl, and her geisha would suddenly be there, holding a finely embroidered cloth for her to dry her hands. Virginia thought it was all quite normal and wonderful.

“Eloise at the Plaza,” she said, “had nothing on us.”

The reality of the economic climate, of course, was this: During the war, Allied forces had firebombed the nation’s main industrial centers to rubble. For example, on May 29, 1945, 454 Boeing Superfortress B-­29s had hit Yokohama Prefecture, destroying 42 percent of it in just over an hour, killing more than seven thousand people. General Curtis LeMay’s 468th Bomb Group had used AN-­M76 incendiary bombs filled with PT-­1 (Pyrogel) to blanket the city with fire. Napalm—­blooming in the air and boiling human flesh, nine hundred to a thousand degrees Celsius at the point of ignition.

After LeMay’s campaign—­and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—­Japan’s economic infrastructure had to be completely rebuilt. “A better world,” General Douglas MacArthur had said during the formal surrender ceremony on board the USS Missouri, “shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past.”

But here is Virginia’s mother. Her drinking begins each morning, immediately after breakfast. Or—­with increasing frequency—­instead of breakfast. The butler makes her a Beefeater gin-­and-­tonic, the tonic poured over square ice cubes and mixed with a wedge of lime, generously cut, with a bit of sour juice and some pungent, viridescent pulp. Or a Manhattan—­Cascade Tennessee whiskey, a dash of Peychaud’s bitters, and sweet vermouth in a wide-­mouthed glass, a cherry sunk at the bottom like the murky eye of some sightless god. Or a 1929 Château Latour Grand Vin in a bell-­shaped glass—­a Bordeaux with sweet notes of dark fruit, with a front palette of tobacco, cedar, and plum. Or unfiltered, crystalline vodka—­served over crushed ice—­if she just needed to do the trick.

Virginia’s mother drank all day—­slowly, steadily, unceasingly. Whole bottles of sake would disappear, one after another after another. She had no responsibilities in the household; her staff included three full-­time live-­in maids, a butler, a cook, and a governess.

Adult children of alcoholics will attest to the unmanageability of their parents’ behavior, how it is unpredictable and prone to vast swings of temperament. For Virginia, punishment for even the smallest things—­leaving an unfolded napkin on the dinner table following a meal, frowning when asked to perform a chore, yawning inappropriately during conversation—­was severe.

“Pick a switch,” Virginia’s mother would say, holding a number of branches out toward her daughter—­giving her a choice.

Don’t pick the small one, Ginny quickly learned. The small one hurts the most. Its tip was voracious; it flayed the skin more easily; it stung and cut like a hungry razor.

A family is fragile. It is destroyed by this kind of ­violence. The things a child needs—­really needs—­must be actively, attentively sought. Listening. Patience. Deep time. None of those can be provided by someone who’s lost in an alcoholic haze. And so, as she grew—­as her needs began to evolve and become more complicated—­fissures began to appear in Virginia’s porcelain fairy-­tale life.


By June 1951, the Korean War was in progress, and the U.S. military turned its attention westward from Japan. Personnel on the Japanese archipelago dwindled. And so the army transferred the Corbetts from the splendor of their overseas appointment.

Standing on the dock in Yokohama—­saying goodbye to a procession of Japanese officials—­the Corbetts received flowers, and cards, and various souvenirs of their time in Japan. The mayor of the city was there, and beside him, on the ground, was a little wicker basket. Virginia kept glancing at it; she swore it moved every time she glanced elsewhere.

The officials presented her mother with a silver bracelet, and a fine silk kimono. They gave her father a box of personalized stationery. And then—­the moment that defied all possibility, all expectation—­the mayor smiled, bent down to the basket, pulled aside a silk blanket, and took out a small creature, a brown-­and-­white four-­pawed animal that fit in the palm of his hand: an Akita puppy.

He bowed deeply. And then he handed it to Virginia.

“His name is Oji,” the mayor said, smiling. “It means ‘prince’ in Japanese. We hope it will be a reminder of the happy time you spent with us in Japan.”

Though Virginia didn’t know it at the time, he was a kind of miracle, that inquisitive puppy, the one that put his nose down now and licked persistently at her wrist. In late 1944, the Hirohito government, beset by famine, had ordered all of the nation’s nonmilitary dogs euthanized. Dog owners, mad with grief, had turned their beloved pets loose into the wilderness of northern Japan in order to save them. Only eighteen Akitas made it through the war alive. They were survivors, dogs that stood as a symbol of rehabilitation and resilience.

“Virginia—­” her mother began, scowling. They couldn’t make Virginia return the puppy, could they? And so the little girl didn’t give her mother a chance to say anything more. She turned and ran up the gangway. And she hid herself—­and Oji—­deep within the decks of the ship. No one found her, and she didn’t come out until hours after the journey was under way.

The Corbetts returned to the routine of stateside military life, a life that transpired on a series of military bases: El Paso, Texas; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Colorado Springs, Colorado. The army had located these bases in dusty, rural areas; there were certainly no geishas, no finger bowls, no luxurious ceremonies, no bottomless bottles of fine sake.

Virginia’s mother took her disappointment out on her daughter. “You were so insignificant, Virginia,” she’d often say, when even the smallest thing the girl had done displeased her, “that I once left you behind in a crib. Certainly—­certainly—­you’ll never amount to anything, my dear.”

It was true, Virginia’s mother had indeed once left her behind in a crib. It happened during a PCA move—­a Permanent Change of Assignment—­from one military base to another. Virginia was still a baby. Her mother was drinking heavily that day, and she lost track of her daughter. Left her behind. Left the infant in the crib and drove a load of boxes from one house to the next. Once there, she began to unpack, popped open a beer, and put on a 78. She especially loved the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and so she listened to this, and had a few more drinks. She danced her way through the new house, flipping the record again and again, listening to that song, as well as the other side, “I Know Why (And So Do You).” She unpacked a few things, but mostly she didn’t. Mostly she just drank. Eventually, she passed out.

When Virginia’s mother regained consciousness, it was almost 5:00 p.m.—­and quiet. Only then did she realize, I’ve left the baby. I’ve left the baby and I have to retrieve her. She tried to go on her own, but she couldn’t find the car keys. There was no telephone. So she went next door. Here she found another military wife—­and explained the situation, as best she could, laughing as she did it. She did manage to remember her old address, however, which was lucky. The neighbor rushed off and found Virginia, safe in her crib but dehydrated and weeping, screaming as loud as she could, her lips chapped, her little face red and blotchy.

This story is bad enough on its own. But to imagine that Virginia’s mother liked to tell it, for some cruel reason, at cocktail parties with other military couples, while Virginia was in the house, listening to it—­this is the truly mysterious thing. The sound of her mother’s voice, a syrupy North Carolina drawl, still echoes in Virginia’s mind to this day—­along with the looping roll of her drunken laughter.

How could she make herself a home in that environment? Endangered, ridiculed, and—­above all else— a little girl. In this kind of place, who could be a child’s hero? Who would rescue her, and stand by her, in the midst of this vast wilderness of anger and addiction?

The answer, of course, would be Oji. The prince.


Oji had grown into a beautiful dog. Stout-­backed, brown and white—­with big paws and a tail that curled like a question mark.

The Akita is the national dog of Japan—­an ancient breed, one that predates the nation’s written history. The Akita is famous for its loyalty and bravery. Its renowned fierceness arises, in part, from the fact that it was—­for many centuries—­bred for dogfights. It was groomed for its size and power. In the mid-­nineteenth century, Nakano, an Akita from the foothills of Mount Moriyoshi, in Akita Prefecture, was widely reported as being 35.4 inches tall at the shoulders. His owners would put two children on his back and walk them around the village.

Oji was an Akita Matagi, or Matagi Inu, a bear-­hunting dog. Beginning in the Tokugawa era, Japanese hunters would use Akita Matagi to track large game—­bears especially, or white-­muzzled boars—­and trap them in place, until the hunters could arrive to shoot them. Young Virginia sometimes imagined her mother as a bear, and Oji as her tracker. “Mother—­cornered in the woods, snarling and snapping, pawing at the dirt with rage. But then Oji, barking and howling, spit flying from his jaws, furious whenever she tried to move. “It was her adolescent fantasy.”

The most famous Akita, unquestionably, was one named Hachiko. Chuken Hachiko—­Faithful Dog Hachiko—­belonged to Dr. Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor of agricultural engineering at the University of Tokyo. Starting when he was a puppy in 1924, the Akita would walk with Dr. Ueno to Shibuya Station each morning. Then, each night, he would meet his owner at that same platform. This continued for over a year. Nearly four hundred happy reunions—­the dog equally joyous, every time.

But then, on May 21, 1925—­a tragedy. Dr. Ueno died, in his office at the university, of a cerebral hemorrhage. That night, Hachiko waited for the train’s return; when his owner didn’t show, the dog simply went home, to the family residence. And so it would be—­every night—­for the next ten years. The Akita would walk through the city streets and wait patiently for the evening train. No matter what the weather—­fierce heat or swirling snow—­he would sit in the place where his owner had once appeared.

Did he dream of the reunion—­lying there, resting, waiting for the train that never came? What is an animal’s sense of the past? Do their memories work like ours? Do they remember on a reel, the way we can, images from our lost past appearing in our imaginations, unbidden, sudden, almost uncontrollable? After a loss do they dream the way humans do, of the lost individual? Of the beloved? The vanished?

After Hachiko’s death in 1935, the station installed bronze footprints—­and a plaque—­at the point where he’d stood. The statue that commemorates him is the most frequently visited monument in all of Japan. Every year, on March 8—­the day the dog died—­Shibuya Station holds a solemn memorial, one that is attended by hundreds of dog owners.

For Japan, this story became a story of national importance. In the last photograph of the Akita’s dead body, eleven men, two women, and one infant are gathered. All of them avert their eyes from the photographer. They look, instead, at the corpse of the poor animal—­stretched on a wooden pallet in front of them. Their hands are clasped together. Their heads are—­almost uniformly—­bowed in prayer. It is a powerful statement: so many people gathered in prayer for the soul of a single animal.

Like Hachiko, Oji was loyal. Each day, he would wait for Virginia to come home from the military base’s elementary school; he’d greet her enthusiastically outside the front door, leaping upward, nipping at her shoulders. Even today—­more than six decades later—­Virginia Marshall can close her eyes and see him. He surges up into the air, flicks his tail to the left, and seems to laugh—­all joy and radiance. Brown and white fur, charged with static electricity, sticks up, uncombed, at every possible angle.

Oji would follow Virginia around the house, as if he sensed her need for protection, going wherever she went, often lingering at the edge of a room or in a doorway, his head resting on his paws, his eyes alert, watchful. But he was also her playmate. One day in January 1953, in the formal dining room, disaster struck.

It is a scene that plays itself out again and again, in almost every country in the world. An eleven-­year-­old girl and her dog, playing indoors. A tennis ball arcs through the air; a vase plummets to the hardwood floor and shatters into thousands of fragments. The beating Virginia endured as a result of this was unimaginable. At the end of it, her mother staggered away, her own tears mixed with the sweat from the exertion of administering the corporal punishment.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xv

Prologue 3

Part 1 The Crucible 9

Part 2 Trait and Trace 33

Part 3 The Puppy 65

Part 4 The Flea and the Lion 119

Part 5 Endings 217

Epilogue 246

Thanks 251

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Dog Gone: A Lost Pet's Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As the owner of a dog with Addisons, I knew I had to read this book. I was struck by the similarities between my dog and Gonker. But even more striking was the portrait of a family that wasn't perfect, but was all the more endearing for their imperfections. I thank the author and the Marshalls for sharing their lives and Gonker's story.