The Traitor Dog

“Plav”, he said.

“What?”, I said back.

“Plav. That’s where you’re going to”

“No, no. There’s been some kind of mistake. I’m supposed to join the Sports Brigade in Pula”

“Plav”, he said tiredly, “It’s Plav, son. You are to report to the barracks on Saturday, September 1st. Here’s your travel money”

I got 420 Yugoslav Dinars. The kid in front of me got 35. The one behind me got 50. I had no idea where or what Plav was, but I was pretty sure I was fucked.

* * *

I liked dogs as a kid, but these were no dogs. They were bred from equal parts German Shepherd, Rotweiler, and centuries of uncontrolled anger. I was afraid of even the slobber coming out of their ever-foaming mouths, convinced it was so full of evil it would turn me to stone if it ended up touching me.

As it turned out, Plav was a village in the Accursed Mountains, the place where I was to spend the next 12 months protecting the Brotherhood and Unity of Yugoslav People against Albanian elements, who for some reason were determined to cross the border and harm The Greatest Socialist Country That Ever Existed. I was given a gun to deal with them once I find them. And I was to be given one of these dogs to find them in the first place.

* * *

It started snowing in October. We had to do our morning gymnastics shirtless for as long the temperature was above freezing. Once below, we were allowed to keep the sleeveless undershirt on.

“I’m feeling warm. I’m feeling the warmth spread through my body”, the Serbian kid next to me kept repeating out loud during the before-the-sunrise squats. His mother taught Yoga.

“You are stupid”, the Macedonian kid replied. He wasn’t recruited for this unit because he was a good athlete, but because he bribed recruitment officials in his village. It cost him one goat and in his mind increased his chances of getting married one day, preferably to Samantha Fox.

* * *

About three months in, it was decided that The Dog Beast would no longer eat me if given the opportunity, so I was cleared to go on the patrols with it.

Nowadays, I see the mountain chain where I lived then referred to as “Albanian Alps”. Nobody called it like that back then. It was always The Accursed Mountains, with the “accursed” part accentuated, almost to the point of spitting on the floor right after saying it. Nobody in their right mind wanted to be there. It was really, really cold, it was dark most of the time, the terrain was rocky and slippery and full of precipices, and unlike the very rare mountaineers who ventured that far, I couldn’t just turn around and go back when I felt like it.

Among other reasons, because I had The Dog Beast tied to my belt, thus somewhat increasing my chances of not falling off the cliff, while simultaneously significantly decreasing my chances of not being pulled forward all the time.

* * *

My sister must have been concerned that the military diet was not sufficient for her athlete baby brother, so she decided to fix it and send me 30 pounds of pork rinds. Actually, she decided to send me 50 pounds of pork rinds, but was then informed at the post office that no packages of over 30 pounds can be sent to Albanian border. That led to some awkward repackaging and a pretty long queue that was formed behind her, but I did get my rinds.

Stashed behind my machine gun, they quickly became the preferred currency of the outpost, kind of like Bitcoin, only more valuable, because there was a limited and a decreasing number of them.

* * *

The Dog Beast stopped first. I could barely see it, because it was dark and we were in the forested part of the route, but I felt the line tied to my belt go limp. I had no idea why it was stopping and to be honest, I was still scared to insist too much, so I stopped, too. As I was contemplating if I had enough time to pee before it decided to pull me again, I saw it curl down and cover its muzzle with the paws. It was the first time it looked like a normal dog and I was almost tempted to bend down and cuddle it.

Then it started yowling in terror.

The Dog Beast was yowling in terror. This had about the same effect on me as being woken up by my father as a 3-years-old, telling me that he had heard something and that he is afraid it is still out there in the closet. Between The Dog Beast and me there was exactly one brave soldier and it wasn’t me. I was not bred to fight and kill and if the one that was felt it needed to be scared shitless, what about me? I had no idea what it was, but it was more than I could handle.

And then I heard them.

First one, then two, then more sounds than I could tell apart, the wolves announced their presence to make it clear that in the hierarchy of badasses, they were quite a few notches higher than my Dog Beast.

* * *

What happened next is still kind of a blur to me. I’d like to think it didn’t involve crying. I’m sure it didn’t involve any rational thinking, or, God forbid, bravery. I’m pretty sure it involved a lot of screaming and firing my M-72 into the general direction of nothingness. It also involved a lot of luck, because none of the 30 shots I fired hit me or The Traitor Dog. I would have surely fired some more, but it is one thing to squeeze your shaking fingers around the trigger and quite another one to manage to change a magazine.

Be as it may, I was now alive and 30 bullets short. Unlike normal military who are given real ammunition only for shooting exercises, we, the elite and brave protectors of our borders, had ours on us all the time. The enemy never sleeps, so neither should we. Or at least not too far from the loaded gun. The problem was, you were not exactly supposed to lose your bullets, which was in the end effect what I did. I could either invent an Albanian intrusion and start a war, go chasing the wolves and actually shoot one to bring it as evidence, or tell the truth.

I was about as inclined to try to get any closer to the wolves as I was to explain what happened to the panel of officers trying to determine if I was more of an idiot or a coward.

Luckily, there was also a fourth way.

* * *

For all the complaining I did while I was there, I never failed to acknowledge that I lived in a Ritz-Carlton compared to my counterparts on the other side, protecting their Motherland against Yugoslavian elements, who for some reason were determined to cross the border and harm The Other Greatest Socialist Country That Ever Existed. To start, they had to serve a two-year term. Then, if anyone in their family had bone spurs or such and got off, they had to serve their two years, too. This led to quite a few families lining up their sons and going, “One, two, one, two, fuck you”, and thanking the sacrificed one for his service of six or eight years.

Then there was the question of equipment. They wore rubber boots in temperatures that were often twenty or thirty degrees below zero. They had similar spin-offs of Russian Kalashnikov as we did, only theirs were far too rusty to actually work. Which was my salvation. Because if you have guns that don’t work, what you have plenty of and no use for are – the bullets.

While they had the surplus of ammunition, what they lacked for was porn. It turns out, in the battle of The Greatest Socialist Countries That Ever Existed, ours was greater because we not only sold porn magazines over the counter, but we even published our own.

* * *

When you needed something, you went to Uroš, the Slovenian. He could get you a pair of new socks from the storage for two packs of cigarettes, or he could get you a pack of cigarettes for two pairs of new socks. Anything but the bullets, apparently.

It took me three kilos of pork rinds, but I got out of the library with two mostly non-sticky Erotikas, a counseling magazine for all questions of socialist love for your neighbor. Uroš quickly expanded the target audience for his new item on stock by relabeling them to Chicken Rinds. He was good, I’ll give him that. He also told me he could give me a very good price if I could bring him some Skenderbeg, Albanian Cognac, which was the second most exported item by the Albanian Defense Forces.

* * *

I tied The Traitor Dog to a rock, and proceeded to a nearby valley with only Mirela, a teacher who almost drowned, but was saved by two lifeguards, and a few naughty nurses under my shirt. I had the feeling that the dog was even more ashamed by his poor combat performance than I was. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t giving me any shit anymore.

I had negotiated over the radio and made a deal for one Erotika in exchange for 30 bullets and one bottle of Skenderbeg, but their English was so bad that I preferred to have a little extra, just in case things went south.

There were two of them.

“You got fuck?”

“Yeah, I got fuck. You have the bullets?”

“See fuck first”

Mirela crossed the border.

“Good fuck”

“Yeah, I know. Bullets, now?”

He gave them to me in a plastic bag, as if they were cherries. I counted. Thirty-four.

“Skenderbeg?”

“More fuck?”

Three heavily armed soldiers involved in an international smuggling stand-off. And a voice that was not demanding, but pleading.

“One more fuck, yes”, and the nurses went east, too.

He didn’t bother to check this one. He reached in the canvas bag and got out two bottles. He held them up.

“Good alcohol! Good morning!”, he exclaimed proudly. It was evening.

“Good alcohol! Good morning!”, said I.

I took the bottles and went back to The Traitor Dog. It looked up to me, as if saying, “We good now?”

“Yeah, we’re good now, Traitor Dog”, I said loudly, and started back for the barracks.

Not tonight, Son

As he strode to the plate, his bat leisurely resting on his shoulder, Karl knew this was it. This was the moment to settle it, once and for all. While there would perhaps be another chance, this was the first time, that one encounter that will remain etched in the collective memory the longest. And, frankly, he knew this was also his best shot, as time was not necessarily on his side.

He felt good. He got a clean single in the second, put up a good at bat in the fourth before lining out sharply to right field and then walked in the seventh. He was not the same menacing presence in the box he was ten, or even five years ago, but he was still someone you’d rather not face in the bottom of the ninth, with the tying run on first base.

They had a new kid on the mound, a young and cocky fireballer, like so many others sprouting around the league these days. He was just like so many Karl has faced over the years, and yet he was like no one before. For this tall and broad-shouldered lefty was his son.

* * *

Since his first steps on the sandlot, Sebastian was a prodigy. He could run faster than the other kids, he could hit further, he could field cleaner. But what really set him apart was the way he could throw. Smooth and sleek, as only lefthanders tend to be, he would hit his target time after time, throwing faster each time, much faster than a kid of his age had any business throwing.

By the time he was 12, he was hitting 65 on the radar gun. When he was 14, he broke 80 for the first time, striking out 13 in a high school varsity game. By the time he turned 17, he was sitting in the mid-nineties and, that June, went 19th overall to the Oakland A’s.

No one ever called him Sebastian. To his family and close friends he was Basti and to almost everyone else he was Karl’s Kid. So, here he was, Karl’s Kid, just fourteen months after turning pro, in the middle of the playoff race, needing just one more out to close it out.

* * *

Karl’s path to the majors was nowhere as smooth as his son’s was. His nothing was smooth, and he prided himself for owing nothing to nobody, for having earned every last bit of what he had in life. He wasn’t drafted out of high school, and for two years after that he barely played at all. He worked shifts at the meat-packing factory and attended community college, and if it weren’t for that Mets scout who got lost on the dusty roads of Iowa, trying to get to a high-school game and settling for a pick-up game of softball and a cold lemonade instead, neither Karl nor his kid would be in the Majors today. Had he not hit the scout’s car, parked in what he thought was a safe distance, not once, but twice, Karl would have probably gotten his degree in American History and went on to teach in that same godforsaken high school not even scouts could find.

He signed for a $5,000 bonus and spent the next seven years in the minors, getting traded from the Mets to the Brewers, then to the White Sox, then back to the Mets, then to those same A’s he was facing now. They all disliked his lack of pedigree, the awkward hitch in his swing, his ever advancing age. Yet, those meat-packing arms kept hitting and kept hitting hard, and by the time he turned 26, he had 207 minor league home runs. He would not hit another one. On his birthday he was pulled out of the River Cats game in the second inning and on the next day he was the starting right fielder for the Oakland Athletics, who finally decided to give him a chance.

He hit a home run in that first game and quickly became a crowd favorite. He had a good three-year run for the A’s, but right after he made his first All-Star team, he was traded to the Dodgers for three pitching prospects. None of them panned out, and Karl really took off once he went to LA, crowning his career with the NL MVP honors in 2009.

* * *

He was taking the first pitch. He almost always did and everybody knew it, none more so than his son, who for all his life tried to soak as much baseball knowledge from his dad as he could. Still, even now, nobody dared put one right down the pipe. Franky, Sebastian’s battery mate, armed with a good heart and bad knees, set up on the outside corner and barely had to move his glove. Knee high, on the black – strike one.

Well, the game is starting now, both Karl and his kid thought to themselves.

Franky called for a slider. He loved sliders, even against the right-handed batters. And Basti could throw them wherever you asked him to. Franky opted for the back-door one and squatted in the same place as the pitch before. The youngster recoiled and let it fly, starting a good foot off the plate and then whiffing back, as if pulled by some enormous sideways gravitational force.

It was a good pitch, no, a great pitch, just brushing the low and outside corner as it crossed the plate. Yet Karl knew it would be a ball, he knew that Supreme-Justice-Thomas, in his 23rd season as a Major League umpire would not give that pitch, not to a kid in the fifth game of his career, not against someone who has hit 200 home runs in the minors and another 300 in the big leagues, against someone who has paid his dues.

When Thomas remained predictably silent, Karl moved his head in a barely visible nod towards the mound. You have to earn it, Son. You have to earn it.

* * *

Karl did his best to make his son earn it all his life. Even though he made his family financially independent many times over, he made sure Sebastian earned his own allowance, working odd jobs at the local stores. He made him volunteer at the pet shelter. And he made absolutely sure he would never influence any of his youth coaches, all eager to please Karl the Great.

On the other hand he did all he could to teach his kid baseball, helping him with his swing and his throwing every time he had a chance. He stepped outside of the batter’s box, picked some dirt, rubbed it on his hands and smiled. What was it, he thought, ten thousand pitches he threw to his son over the years? Hundred thousand? And now here they were, his kid throwing to him for the first time in his life.

* * *

Franky called for another slider, of course he did. Front office guys were raving about the kid’s spin rate or something, but Franky couldn’t care less about this yuppie blabber. He had played for San Diego for years and had seen Karl deposit more than enough fastballs into Chavez Ravine bleachers. They got a freebie on the first pitch, he’ll take his chances with the sliders on the corner from now on.

Basti shook him off. He always had this air of self-assurance, maturation beyond his years and to him it seemed only natural that he, the rookie, should shake off the 8-year veteran. Yes he had a great slider, but he loved his fastball more. He had faced 17 batters since he was promoted and he struck out 11 of them, and if you asked him he would tell you he could have done it without a secondary pitch.

It is not wise for a backup catcher to get into a feud with the bonus baby wunderkind, not when he doesn’t have a contract for next year, Franky thought, so he reluctantly stretched just one finger. Sebastian quickly confirmed and came to the set.

Karl knew, of course he did. He would have known even without the shaking off, he knew that his kid wanted to prove himself to him, that he wanted to get out of his shadow. That he wanted to overpower his dad, not trick him. He knew and he was ready.

The ball left the mound at 97 miles per hour, headed for that spot just under the hands. It was a beautiful pitch, a celebration of youth and might. On another night, Karl would have watched it in appreciation, realizing just how lucky he was and how far his baby son has made it. But not tonight. There was just too much muscle memory in him, it was just too deep in him not to react.

He saw the pitch, wildly spinning towards him. But he also saw his kid on the mound, he saw him in the nursery, on his first day of school, in his first tee-ball game. He smiled again and murmured. Not yet, Son. Not tonight. And then he started his swing.