Wilhelm David by Jerry Sticker
One thing was for certain. The dog was a double agent. First time I saw him was out there roaming the countryside. It was called “No Man’s Land” for a reason. But what if you were not a man?
There were quite a few itchy trigger fingers that day. I wasn’t a dog person. In fact, I’d been bitten a handful of times by them growing up in Vermont. I also felt it wasn’t right to shoot anything couldn’t carry a gun. Of course, I was not the commander. Couldn’t tell ‘em not to shoot. At some point, you just gotta beg.
“Let it alone why don’t ya. He’s starving,” I said, pointing at the dog. “See them ribs.”
He wandered closer and closer until a regular Rin Tin Tin was right there, not too far in front of me.
“I’m gonna shoot those ribs,” one soldier named Johnson said. “Behind them is the Germans. Tiny little Germans. Thing gets in here, they gonna come out and kill us.”
The man shot and missed. I pushed the barrel of his gun down.
“What do you mean by ‘gonna come out’?” I asked.
“I gotta explain it to you, Dan? He swallowed ‘em, didn’t he? So they gotta come out the natural way.”
“I don’t think so--”
“Stranger things have come out of a dog’s ass. Now you just let me take care of this.”
He nodded and I took a step back. Right before he shot, I interrupted him.
“Just a minute now, Johnson. You ever met a Tiny German?”
“No, Dan, have not. Nor do I intend to.”
I have,” I said. “They do not like the big Germans.”
We all had imaginations afire in the trenches. At any given moment, you were a participant to some kind of dream, willing or not.
“German’s a German. Look at him. Packing ‘em in there,” he said. “See the waddling.”
“You’re not hearing me.” I wrestled the gun from him. “If he’s got anything in there, he’s got allies. It would be like me shooting you. You want that?”
He looked at me and then looked off at the dog.
“Fine. Let him run wild. What if he’s a bomb? Blow you and me both to the Netherlands. Have us speaking in Dutch.”
“I’ll be a tulip farmer. And you got two thumbs. One for the dike and the other for wherever you like.”
I started to call for the dog. He got close enough for me to lure him down into the trenches by waving a piece of leather dipped in bacon grease.
No one knew the breed. He did have some German Shepard in him. That much you couldn’t deny. He had that long snout and long body. He also had the strong presence of another breed right underneath this German mask, something wholesome, something very egalitarian. A politician’s eyes and smile. Could’ve put a pince-nez on him. He was part Roosevelt. Maybe part Labrador or hound or collie as well. No one knew. We were soldiers not dog experts. We did know this: He was likeable for a dog that looked for the most part like the enemy’s dog. I called him David, simply because I had been reading the bible and I liked the David and Goliath story. Miracle this dog was alive with all the guns he had pointed at him. We fed him and, after a week or so, you could no longer see the ribs. The dog was happy and, though he was friendly with everyone else, stayed mostly by my side.
A few days later, I woke up and the dog was gone. I looked up and down those trenches. No one had seen him. I accused one of them of killing him for food. That man did agree he might taste better than what they were eating. I punched this man. We fought until the others got between us, until the seargent threatened to shoot us both.
“Nobody’s doing a thing to that dog,” the seargent said. “Don’t you worry.”
“Might as sooner eat you, than that dog,” I said to the man I had been fighting. “He’s a better person than you will ever be.”
“I’ll eat you first,” he said and pushed me backwards.
“Alright now, you bunch of freaking cannibals,” the seargent said. “Get back to your posts. We’ll find that damn dog sooner or later.”
“Are we going to look for him?” I asked.
“Well,” the seargent said, taking me aside. “Not exactly. Look Dan. I think your friend used us for food. He’s gone back home wherever that may be. If he ever makes it there. There’s a good chance he will, as bad as those German pinheads are shooting. He probably belongs to a little old lady in one of the nearby villages. She’ll be mad he wandered so far from home. But he’ll be as plump as the day he left, and that’ll make her happy.”
I didn’t care about some old lady’s happiness. As the seargent was talking, I couldn’t help but picture my friend, scurrying home, riddled with the enemy’s bullets, just making it to the house, and dropping down at the front door just as the woman opened it. To me, David was as good as dead. I was distraught, devastated. I did not join the men to play cards that night. I love a good card game.
A few days after, someone spotted something wandering through the smoke and scattered shots. I got tears at the sight of him walking through there like it was the backyard. He trotted back to the trenches and jumped down inside. It would be a day of ceasefire and celebration. He had a note tied around his neck. Something written on it. In German. I knew a little German and interpreted the note, which said something to the effect of “Thanks for feeding Wilhelm. Yours Truly, Germany.” Your man wrote back on the note “The dog’s name is now David. He belongs to me. To America.”
This led to a series of back and forth excursions from one line to the other. It became common knowledge that David would, after the fourth day of getting back, leave in the morning right after eating his breakfast. He would then go across the field and disappear for four days. It became common knowledge that he was doubling up on the rations. Making friends with the enemy. We envied him, this ability to play both sides, this ability to be both Wilhelm and David. He would come back with notes on how to take better care of him. I would write back notes such as “We care for our dogs here better than you do your people.” A note would come back saying, “Your mother is a dog.” I wrote back a note that said, “Rome’s mother was a dog. So having a dog for a mom is a good thing.” I got a note back saying, “I knew that she-wolf. She was a whore. Like your mom.” I crumbled up the note and I threw it out of the trenches as if I was launching a grenade. “My mom is not a whore!” I shouted to the fields, to the distant enemy fire, to the winds.
“Sit down and shut up about your mom!” the seargent said. “We got a war goin’ on.”
“That’s the point, Seargent,” I said. “I need to say something back to these Germans. Or we lose.”
The seargent sat down on a stool. “Hmm…yeah…why don’t you say…why don’t we let something slip? Just, you know, pretend you don’t know what you’re saying. Well, you don’t have to pretend, but you know what I mean. Give ‘em false data. Or how about this?”
Seargent wrote something on the piece of paper. Then crossed it out.
“Now it looks like you’re writing your message on the back of something they aren’t supposed to be seein’.”
I read it.
“300 reinforcements by Tuesday? That true?”
“No, dumb ass. But they’ll think so. Lemme change it 3,000.”
The seargent looked at the note and nodded his head. I took it and wrote, “Ich liebe meine mutter. Ich liebe unser hund. Danka.” on the front. I love my mother. I love our dog. Thank you.
Not too long after that Wilhelm David was making his way back to the other side. The seargent came over to me. He looked out at the fields and shook his head.
“What the hell were we thinking?” he asked. “If we get imaginary reinforcements. They’ll send for real reinforcements. We need reinforcements! I should have wrote something else down. I should have written ‘retreat’.”
“Them or us?”
“Us, stupid. Give ‘em a false sense of security,” the sargent said. “Now we just gotta wait. See what happens.”
David Wilhelm did not come back at the anticipated time. Instead, they shellacked us. Over the course of the next few days, we fought the bloodiest battle any of us had seen to that point. They got reinforcements. We did not get 300 much less 3000. We got less than 30. Still, we were able to withstand them. When the smoke had cleared, we realized they had, in fact, retreated the position.
I pictured the dog, safe and tucked away from our enemy fire until the fighting stopped. I was certain, in retreat, he would’ve followed them back. Or they would’ve taken him with them. The thoughts of no longer seeing him saddened me. Nothing saddened me more than what I saw after we left the trench and walked out.
When I got about 100 feet out I saw him. He was there on the ground. He had made it halfway and that was as far as he was ever going to get, the middle of no man’s land, the place where he was neither David nor Wilhelm. There were no tiny Germans coming out of him. Only blood. He had the note tied to him with these words on it written in English: “You are welcome.”
© Jerry Sticker 2013
Jerry Sticker is a writer and marathon runner. He frequently contributes articles and interviews for Runner's World magazine. He is currently at work on a novel called Dog Runners. He's also working on a screenplay based on a novel by a 19th century French writer.
Wilhelm David was read by Everett Goldner for the Heroes & Villains Show on 1st May 2013