Well, it was bound to happen. I got sick. Not urgently sick, or chronic. A flu, a bug, a virus. Not THE virus, whatever iteration of it we are experiencing. Other than the first Monday of lockdowns three years ago (can you believe what happened to all of us three years ago?), I’ve not had COVID. I might not have had COVID three years ago either, but there was no testing back then in the Keweenaw.

I’ve avoided all the waves of sickness that have rolled in and out of college classes. Until late last week.

Over the weekend I rested, which means I vegged out on the couch under Mause’s blanket of joy watching trailers. As a literary artist, my language is that of dreams and stories — images that stir the heart. I like to feel what a trailer has to offer, distilling a film, series, or animation into a few minutes worth of images. For me, it’s like the flash fiction version of a movie.

Weekend trailer-watching padded the possible watchlist for me and Todd. It’s difficult to find watchable material that’s engaging but not agitating; interesting but not incorrect; correct but not boring. Todd’s definition of correct is a study in suspended reality — if a filmmaker portrays a Boeing MH-6M Little Bird on screen it better not sound like a Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk. That’s something for us writers to remember when we add realistic details to our stories; a single error can take down an entire book if you have a critical audience. Todd is hyper-critical. He can watch documentaries like Ranger, but can’t take the drama of Yellowstone. He thinks The Hangover is hilarious but he can’t fathom the absurdity of Everything, Everywhere All at Once. Sometimes, he prefers to hop from one YouTube clip to another, stopping the minute he encounters something wrong(!). Like the sound of mismatched rotor blades.

Dog, staring Channing Tatum (whose name messes with my dyslexia every time) seemed like an option; the trailer made me laugh and cry. But it was risky because Tatum (is that his last or first name; I’m intending it’s his last) plays a former Ranger. Most authors and filmmakers get it wrong. However, I caught a detail from the trailer that I thought was promising — in a scene, Tatum claims to be part of Ranger Battalion. Battalion is crucial. You see, many soldiers make Airborne. Only Airborne-qualified paratroopers can volunteer for Ranger School. Few are selected. Most wash out after Phase One. Todd did. But you can re-apply like he did and complete Phase Two. Being Ranger-qualified does not guarantee a soldier gets placed in a Battalion. Todd earned that distinction. Battalion carries a lot of weight.

And asshole-ness. Yep, I said it. And Todd loves it that I still call him by that “term of endearment.” They are assholes. And the movie Dog gets its right. Even the Ranger Battalion dog, Lulu, is an asshole.

There’s a powerful reason Rangers are assholes. They are trained that way. What the Army flips on in soldiers and war dogs, the Army is incapable or uninterested to turn off. Let loose in the civilian world, they don’t fit. Often, Tatum’s character doesn’t mention he was in the military, let alone in an elite unit part of the Joint Special Operations Command. It might seem odd to viewers, especially when speaking up might be the thing that resolves a situation. But it’s not just a literary device; Rangers don’t boast about being Rangers. Unless they want to piss off an MP or buy a Marine birthday cake.

Not only does Dog get the culture right, but it’s one of the best representations of how disposable our elite soldiers are. In the movie, Tatum says, “Rangers find a way to die.” It’s a reference to the on-switch they themselves can’t figure out until they check out. As an extension of how lost post-service Rangers can be, Lulu shares many of Tatum’s attributes of poor adjustment to civilian life. And this is where the movie gripped my heart. In one scene, Tatum makes a stop to see her littermate, also a former war dog. She hugs the handler and Tatum is surprised to find a squishy center still in Lulu.

The handler says of her brother, “I’ve been working every day for six months. When he stopped struggling, that’s when I realized I could stop struggling, too.” The pivotal moment for Tatum and Lulu comes later.

Dog honors the dignity of combat veterans despite their struggles. It shows that even the biggest assholes still have squishy soft hearts. Something I knew early on about Todd. Until his more recent battles with the long-term effects of TBI and PTSD, his kids recount how their dates and coaches were terrified of “Daddy” but the kids knew him as their squishy Growly Bear. It was not lost on me that Lulu was destined to be put down because she had become too difficult to handle.

Yeah, let that sink in a moment.

I swear, if the VA could, they’d do the same to these vets suffering from the complications of their training, injuries, and aging. The dog takes on the metaphor of disposability. Tatum knows it but remains dutiful to his mission to deliver Lulu to her last photo opp and final fate. By this time in the film, their camaraderie and shared service and struggles have melded. You can’t separate the man from the dog.

In one of the most powerful images I’ve seen recently, they come to their last night in the desert. Tatum, drunk, tries to drive off Lulu into the vast wasteland. The desert. Empty promises of freedom. It hit me hard in the chest. It reminded me of the catchphrase, “Freedom is not free.” What do we know of freedom, anyhow? Those who fight for a nation’s freedom are like the dog standing at the edge of a desert. Where do they go? What do they do? How is living alone and empty free? I sobbed. I looked over at Todd and he was crying, too.

It was cathartic, facing a hard truth. The shadow of military service is a dog left in the desert, free to live or die.

But the movie has an elixir. Tatum and the dog need to take care of each other because no one else is coming to save them from what they face. Lulu refuses to “be free.” She stays by his side. And in the end, he stays by hers. (SPOILER: happy ending.)

Dog is also a movie veteran families can understand. While it is not our direct struggle represented in the images, it is a rallying cry — yes, these assholes matter. They are our assholes who did what we could not, deserving of what they cannot have, of what we cannot have with them as functional families. Regardless, we face the desert and choose to stick together. As one daughter of a Vietnam veteran who is dying of brain cancer said, if my dad can carry the bodies of his buddies out of the jungle swamps so they could be properly buried, I can carry my dad’s burden so he can die with dignity at home. These are the real veteran family experiences I know.

Dog understands courage, commitment, and honor.

I didn’t intend to go so dark, but I needed to animate those images in my mind to prepare myself for the next round of edits on my novel about the veteran spouse experience of “long-haulers” — the ones who don’t give up when common sense says, tap out. The ones who can soothe the muzzled soldiers and give voice to their after-war life. I have a new editor, too. It’s taken two years, but Todd has finally agreed to edit Miracle of Ducks. Lord help me if I named the helicopters incorrectly!

Now, I leave you to contemplate the dog in the desert image. Maybe you have a joyful interpretation, humor, grace, or playfulness. We literary artists play with shadows and light. We don’t hide from the depths. Which direction will you go?

April 3, 2023, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about a dog in the desert. Why is the dog there? Who else is involved? Is there a deeper metaphor you can make of the desert? Go where the prompt leads!

  1. Submit by April 8, 2023. Please use the form below if you want to be published in the weekly collection. The Collection publishes on the Wednesday following the next Challenge. Stories must be 99 words. Rules & Guidelines.
  2. Writers retain all copyrights to any stories published at Carrot Ranch.
  3. A website or social media presence is not required to submit. A blog or social media link will be included in the title of any story submitted with one.
  4. Please include your byline with your title on one line. Example: Little Calves by Charli Mills. Your byline can be different from your name.
  5. Please include the hashtag #99WordStories when sharing either the Challenge or Collection posts on social media.

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