One Summer with the Dogs of War

Sydney in the summer of 1975 was vibrating in the shock of the dismissal of the Prime Minister. There were sticky days with feeble fans that did little but breathe gasps of hot air in predictable rhythms and there was talk of cyclones off the coast of Western Australia.

But all that Mandy Sullivan could think about was getting a dog of her own.

She’d wanted one for as long as she could remember and, since she was finally about to celebrate her tenth birthday, she had begun to believe that her parents couldn’t – or shouldn’t – avoid the inevitable any longer. Especially if Mandy herself earned the money to buy the pet.

Mandy had long stopped talking about the issue to her mother and father as excessive pleading had done nothing but irritate them and seemed to cement them even more firmly in their negative position. So, for the entirety of the year, Mandy had kept all canine related thoughts to herself, even going so far as to circumvent discussion of animals of any kind and avoid ‘Lassie’ films whenever they were on television. But her plans – although internalised – had continued to move forward. She had made notes in her diary about possible names. Sketched routes for daily walks. Kept a tally of the growing ‘Dog Fund’. And most importantly, she had begun to draft a number of possibilities for the words she would say when she finally announced, with clarity and determination, that there was no other option for the family but to increase by one four-legged member.

So, on a warm December morning, as she made her way to the Dog Fund job that she had organised for that week – weeding the garden of her sister’s History teacher – Mandy was, as ever, immersed in thought. With her eyes following her plans more than her immediate path, she mused over her proposed speech in the glum certainty that it was still missing the elements that her parents would find truly compelling. Unfortunately, her musing was so all-encompassing that she passed Mr Clendinning’s house and collided with a person coming through the gate of the home next door.

“Sorry.” Mandy looked up apologetically and then quizzically around until she came to realise where she was.

“That doesn’t matter,” the lady said, with a strong accent and a light shrug.

“I meant to go …”, Mandy pointed back towards the Clendinning’s narrow driveway.

The woman nodded. “Then you should go,” she said with calm simplicity before she set off up the street.

After an hour of kneeling, scrutinising blades of grass and digging selectively, Mandy paused to count the weeds in the bucket ­– Mr Clendinning was giving her five cents for every dozen weeds ‘of substance’ and she had found eleven of the ones that Mr Clendinning called ‘catsear’ and six large clumps of sprouting dandelions. She was pleased but not satisfied. The money was all well and good but the verbal proposition to her parents was the key. If she didn’t phrase it just the right way, if she didn’t have the most convincing argument … Mandy sat back on her heels and, as she gazed out in the direction of the road, she saw the woman who had been the victim of her earlier distraction returning along the footpath.

The lady was different enough to distract Mandy from her dog preoccupation – a not inconsiderable feat. It wasn’t that her appearance was particularly outlandish. She didn’t have garish clothes or unusual features. There was just something about her that set her apart from the grown up women that Mandy knew. Her mother. Her teachers. Her friends’ mothers. None of them had the poise and detachment that the Clendinnings’ neighbour seemed to have. Her dress and hair weren’t quite like any Mandy had seen, but mostly it was her walk, her gait. The lady held herself in a distinctly foreign way – as if there were no flies or sweat or laziness. As if things like thongs and shorts and icy-poles simply didn’t exist. Her world was clearly not one of casualness or frivolity or hooting with laughter. And though Mandy’s existence was built on all those things, she found herself waving uncertainly. And the woman’s head turned slightly at the movement. Even her nod with a tight smile of recognition carried a unique style that separated her from the other female occupants of the suburbs. There was no hint of condescension. No haughtiness. Just a natural preoccupation that made her admirable and interesting and strange.

In the days that followed, as she divested the Clendinning lawn of its infestation, Mandy saw the woman come and go. Down the path and through the gate of the neighbouring house. Sometimes sitting in the shadows of the tiny, overgrown back garden. But always encapsulated within an elegance and thoughtfulness that kept her disconnected from the informality of the Sydney summer.

It came as no surprise, then, that Mandy observed her struggling one afternoon with the Hills hoist after emerging from the next door house with a basket of wet laundry. The effort was so inept and protracted – and so at odds with the woman’s general demeanour – that Mandy found herself breaking the wall of careful politeness and clambering over the fence.

“Here,” she said, as she wound the handle on the stem of the rotary clothes line, “if you turn this, it gets lower … then it’s easier to reach.”

The woman’s smile was warmer than it had been in her occasional acknowledgements but she still maintained the refinement and reserve that Mandy found so mystifying. “Thank you – I should have seen that myself.”

Mandy shrugged. “Sometimes you need someone to show you stuff – I had a doll once that could cry and I didn’t even know that it could wet itself as well until Debbie McAfee showed me.”

The smile grew just a little. “Dolls,” the woman nodded. “You like dolls?”

Mandy looked horrified. “No, course not! I’m almost ten! That was ages ago.”

“But you like gardening.”

“No!” Mandy lowered her voice. “I mean, I don’t like it but it’s … something … to earn some money.”

“And what would someone who is ‘almost ten’ need money for?” the woman asked, cocking her head to one side as she waited for an answer.

Mandy sighed. “A dog. … it’s what I’ve always wanted but Mum and Dad say no … but if I pay for it …” Her voice tapered into silent thought. “I’ve just got to earn the money for a dog.”

“You think money is the only reason you haven’t got a dog?”

“Well, Mum and Dad say that I won’t look after it but if I show them how much I want it and how I can do all sorts of things to get one – even things I don’t really like – then they’ll see that I’ll look after it.” Mandy’s voice held its certainty until the last few syllables.

“You’re not sure about this plan?”

“Well, I hope. If I was them, I would see how much I wanted it.” She twisted her face as she thought. “But if I was them, I’d want a dog and I’d get one because grown-ups can do what they want.”

A puff of laughter burst spontaneously from the woman. “You think that, but it’s not really true. It just seems that way … when you are ‘almost ten’.”

Mandy was indignant. She thought she was being laughed at. “Well then, what would you do? If you were me and your Mum and Dad said you couldn’t have a dog, what would you do?”

“Now, now,” the woman said. “Don’t get angry. I am not saying that you are doing the wrong thing. I think that you are doing good things – the gardening, the money … but you just need to be prepared that …” The woman paused. Mandy’s frown of anger was dissolving into something more vulnerable. “Well, sometimes the grown people don’t do what you think they should.” Mandy was looking lost. “But you asked me what I would do and I will tell you …” She thought. “I would explain to my parents all the good things about dogs … how clever they are, how brave, how loyal … those things. … I would make them see what an asset such a thing would be.”

“What’s an asset?” Mandy asked bluntly, her interest overcoming any of the polite phrasing that her mother had drilled into her.

“It means a good thing, useful.”

“Oh,” said Mandy, a little crestfallen that this wasn’t, after all, something new that would be the key to her argument. “I am going to tell them that … I’ve been writing things … things to tell them when I’ve got enough money saved.”

“Good,” said the woman, “excellent. Then you will do your best and we hope they will see the good sense in what you say.”

Mandy rolled her eyes. “I don’t know, though. I don’t know if I’ve got the right words to do it yet.” Her eyes narrowed as she looked at the woman carefully. “Maybe you could help me … just with the words …” She paused as a plan evolved in her mind. “… there should be at least three more days of weeds at the Clendinnings,” she gestured hurriedly over her shoulder towards the garden on the other side of the fence, “so when I come for that, I could take a break and you could help me with the words … I could bring my diary and write them down …” She stopped and looked at the woman who was looking doubtful. “Pleeeease,” she urged. “It would really help.” She thought for a moment. “I could give you some of my weed money – Mrs Duggan’s going to pay me to wash her car next week so I’d make some of it back then …”

The woman was shaking her head. “No, no … I don’t need your weed money …”

Mandy’s face expressed every level of her disappointment.

The woman softened very slightly. “… but if I am here when you are taking your weed breaks, perhaps we will talk … perhaps.”

And that’s how it began. Mandy and Mrs Younger – they had properly introduced themselves the day after the Hills hoist interaction – talked more about dogs through that summer than anyone in Sydney could have done. It wasn’t a flowing conversation at first. Mrs Younger was a serious person, not given to unnecessary chatter, but Mandy knew she had found a resource that could be the difference between convincing her parents and putting a permanent end to her dreams of dog ownership, so she had persisted. And the talks went beyond three days of weeding into visits and sometimes walks as Mrs Younger did the shopping to help out her sister, Inge, whose house it was next to the Clendinning’s.

“Loyalty,” Mrs Younger said, “is a great thing in dogs. And devotion. I knew a dog once who loved her master so well that she stayed with him, even when he could no longer go outside. And she was not a small dog – she was a sheep dog, the type bred for herding. But still she lived with him – closed in – and she stayed by his side.”

“There was a dog,” she recalled another time, “that was so eager to please her master, that she allowed him to place silly spectacles on her snout and she would raise her paw in a certain way that would make him laugh. It was such a sight that people heard about that dog – Jackie – in other countries.” Mrs Younger shook her head in quiet disbelief. “And I am sure the dog knew nothing of the reasons for her master’s amusement … or the interest of others … but she did it. Because it made him happy.”

“I wouldn’t make my dog do things for silly reasons,” Mandy said. “My dog would be my friend so I wouldn’t tease her … or him.”

“Good,” nodded Mrs Younger, “that’s a good way to be. If your dog trusts you, you should show that you deserve to be trusted.” After that, Mrs Younger became quiet and didn’t seem to hear any other questions or remarks. So Mandy had left for the afternoon and spent her time picking flowers in the park and tying them in bunches to sell to people in her street for ten cents a posy.

One drizzly morning – a relief from the full blast of summer heat – as they sat inside Inge’s house gazing out over the weeds spreading across the Clendinning’s lawn next door, Mrs Younger turned to Mandy. “How is it you can come here all by yourself? What does your mother think, this ‘almost ten’ girl wandering alone around the streets?”

Mandy shrugged. “Oh, she’s at work. And since the holidays started, Jodie and Michael are supposed to keep an eye on me but they don’t care. Michael sleeps all day and Jodie goes to Annette’s house because they both like Jason who lives behind her.”

“So you can do what you choose?”

Mandy nodded. “I have to be home by three … so Mum doesn’t get back and worry, and I go home at lunchtime to get something to eat. But mostly I can go to places to make dog money … and come and see you.”

“Well, take care,” Mrs Younger said, with a light tilt of her head, “people are not like dogs.” There was a pause. But Mandy’s curiosity – and ongoing preoccupation – soon broke the silence and brought them back to their ongoing canine conversation.

Mrs Younger seemed to know more stories about exceptional dogs than anyone.

“Tell me about Rolf again,” Mandy urged later as they walked under an umbrella to get milk from the corner shop.

“Well,” Mrs Younger said with a soft smile at the enthusiasm, “Rolf was one of the cleverest dogs I have heard about – and there are many clever dogs – but they say that Rolf could spell out words by tapping on a board.”

“So taps meant letters …” Mandy prompted, having heard the story several times before, her feet finding impromptu skips in her exuberance.

“Yes, the number of taps matched to each letter of the alphabet. And they say that once he was able to do that, he learned foreign languages … expressed ideas on religion. Apparently there was time he even asked a lady …”

“… if she could wag her tail!” Mandy laughed.

“Yes,” Mrs Younger nodded with a warm smile, “they say he did that”.

Mandy suddenly stopped and looked thoughtful. “Where was he … Rolf … where did he live? Could I have a dog like that, do you think?”

“Oh, he wasn’t a pet, Rolf was a special dog, trained in a school after he was found in a search for animals with such intelligence – some people thought then that dogs might be used to do many things … to help their country … they said that Rolf even asked, with his tapping, to join the army so that he could serve against the French.”

“What are the French?”

Mrs Younger shook her head. “People from France. It was a long time ago. When things were different … and I don’t know if I believe …”

“Oh, I believe,” squawked Mandy. “I believe that Rolf could do all those things. Dogs are very clever. And I’ll tell Mum and Dad that …”

“Well, perhaps don’t tell them about the army. Dogs wanting to fight might not be something that will help your cause.”

“Hmm … yes, you’re prob’ly right,” agreed Mandy. “But I’ll tell them about the other things. And about Jackie’s salute and how Blondie never left her master’s side …”

“Ah,” Mrs Younger interrupted, “but, you see, that is not always a good thing. A dog’s attachment to one person can upset others. The wife of my employer, Blondi’s master, hated poor Blondi … perhaps because the dog was always at her husband’s feet, perhaps because he gave such love to his pet … but she would kick Blondi under the dining table, she hated the dog so.”

Mandy looked horrified. “She kicked the dog?!”

Mrs Younger nodded. “Oh yes, such devotion can be good for some but not for others.” She gazed out from the shadow of the umbrella through the falling rain. “That’s something that you should remember … we should all …” her voice faded into deep distracted thoughts.

Towards the end of the summer, when the Johnsons had come home from the beach and paid her for feeding KitKat while they were away, Mandy double-checked her savings and decided. That it was time. So when her father had come home from work and had dealt with his parched throat (‘dryer than a desert track’, he would say), she took her notes and watched for the time when her mother would leave the casserole to simmer while she sat in the lounge room for The News. It was a business story that ignited Mandy to action – her plea involved finance and neither of her parents seemed interested in the television reports on global economics. So she began.

She outlined the arguments for and addressed those against. She stressed her dedication and her responsibility for the initial cost. She provided evidence of the many positive canine traits. And she finished with her unequivocal statement. “And so, a dog would be an asset. And that’s a good thing. Useful. And you always say, Mum, we’re a useless bunch so a dog would be something you would like. An asset.”

It was a hot February afternoon when Mandy walked past the Clendinnings. She didn’t even glance to check the progress of the lawn through the shimmer of heat that seemed to dance all around – she had a purpose that would not allow distraction.

“C’mon,” she clicked, and she tugged at the lead to persuade the Airedale terrier away from its frenetic snuffling at the fence. The rusty clunk of the gate in the quiet street soaked into the hot haze as Mandy padded up the footpath. The dog stood by her side at the door. Mandy knocked.

After a while, brisk footsteps approached along the hallway inside. In her mind, Mandy could see the patterned carpet and the sensible shoes below a quizzical expression that concealed the genuine warmth that lay beneath. (Mrs Younger seemed to filter the world through a sternness that was contrary to her true benevolence – an artificial adornment that Mandy had come to consider more like a hat than an indicator of her friend’s personality.)

But when the door opened, she was surprised. The face that greeted her had some of features that she’d been expecting but it was more petite and lacked the guarded look that Mandy knew. “Oh, hello. Is Mrs Younger here? I came to show her Rolf.”

The woman at the door shook her head. “No, Traudl is not here. She has gone back to Munich.” The woman began to close the door.

“Wait,” Mandy injected. “When will she be back? … I could come back tomorrow.”

The woman paused and looked through the gap with a slight smile. “No. Tomorrow she won’t be here either. Munich is a long way. It’s her home. She’s gone back there.”

“Oh,” Mandy looked deflated and the woman’s face moved back into the shadows of the house.

The door closed.

Mandy stood silently for a moment. The dog sat obediently beside her. Then the little girl’s face firmed with resolution and she raised her hand and knocked at the door once again.

The woman’s footsteps came with a little more impatience along the hall carpet.

“Yes?” her face said, through the partially opened door, poised to be firmly shut.

“Sorry but could you just tell her … Mrs Younger …,” Mandy interjected. “could you tell just her then … please … about him. About Rolf.”

The woman looked down, bemused. “Why would my sister want to know about your dog?”

“She helped me,” Mandy explained, as if to a small child. “She told me about dogs and helped me with the words. So then Mum and Dad said I could have him. And it was ‘cos of her. Mrs Younger. So could you tell her? Please.”

The woman stood for a moment. And then nodded. “If you like … alright, I will tell her. … What is your name? So I can say who has this dog.”

“Rolf,” Mandy reminded.

“Rolf,” the woman repeated, her face softening slightly.

“And I’m Mandy,” Mandy said. She looked down at the dog beside her. “We’re Mandy and Rolf.” She smiled and punctuated the end of the interaction with a resolute nod. Then she turned, beckoned the dog with a brief tightening of the lead and they walked down the path and through the gate.

And home.

* *

Maidstone in the summer of 2011 was buzzing in the hope that early spring warmth would lead to long sunny summer days. England festered in the anxiety and gloom of the global financial crisis and Conservative spending cuts but people still found simple pleasure in bright days and picnics and light summer clothes.

But all that Amanda Sullivan could think about was finding her old diary.

She knew it was somewhere in her clutter of the storage cupboard – she’d added to it only the year before – but the musty shelves were as shadowy as some parts of her memory (where she’d begun to find that age and menopause could eat at the order of a once-efficient brain). Finally, she put her hands on the little book and brought it out into light. And as she turned the pages, she knew she had to re-read some of the old handwriting before she scribbled the new entry that had brought her searching. She stopped on a word that had been written in pencil and then later, corrected in ink. ‘Blondie’ had become

Blondi

Mandy read on.

Hitler’s German Shepherd. Stayed with him even after move to underground bunker. Always by his side and slept in his bedroom. Hated by Eva Braun, Hitler’s wife, who preferred her own dogs – two Scottish terriers.

The lines had been written in the careful hand of a teenager whose trained handwriting was often assessed and marked accordingly. In a similar style but in different ink, the following sentences had been added.

Before Hitler committed suicide, he ordered the pills be tested on Blondi in case they were fake. They weren’t. Hitler was devastated until he killed himself not long after. Then his dog-handler shot Blondi’s pups and injected Eva Braun’s dogs. Blondi’s death upset the people in the bunker more than Eva Braun’s suicide.

Beneath that, in the more mature – and less judicious – penmanship of an adult, there was another entry:

Jackie

Just before Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, German diplomats in Finland were asked by their foreign office to gather evidence on a dalmation that was known to raise its paw in the style of a Nazi salute. The wife of its owner ­– who was known for her anti-Nazi sentiments – dubbed the dog ‘Hitler’, though its name was Jackie, and unnamed witnesses said the dog performed the salute when the dictator’s name was used as a command. The owner was ordered to the German embassy in Helsinki and questioned as the foreign office sought ways to bring him to trial for insulting Hitler. He assured them that he never called the dog by the Führer’s name, although his wife had, but no witnesses would repeat their accusations in front of a judge.

A folded newspaper cutting sat over the facing page of the diary. Mandy flipped it open with her fingers and shook her head softly as she looked at the photograph of a jovial man standing beside a dog with round eyeglasses adorning its face as if they were everyday wear. Then she refolded the paper along its familiar creases and slid it over the notes she had been reading to look at the opposing page of the notebook. It was blank but for one word:

Rolf

Mandy lifted a pencil from the floor where she had dropped it during her hunt through the cupboard and held it poised for a moment beneath the title. She retraced the line under the heading one more time. And then she began to write:

Based on ideas of German animal psychologists and the Nazi philosophy that there was a strong bond between humans and nature, Hitler set up an ‘Animal Talking School’. Dogs were recruited for training with the idea that they may ultimately serve alongside German troops and perhaps even guard concentration camps, freeing officers for other work. Teachers of the school reported that

Mandy paused and took a fresh newspaper clipping from her shirt pocket. She scanned the contents thoughtfully and then returned to her writing.

one dog barked “Mein Führer” when asked to describe Hitler and another – Don, a German pointer, barked “Hungry! Give me cakes” in a human sounding voice (in German). But an Airedale terrier named Rolf was reported to have come up with the most impressive behaviours – they claimed that he could spell by tapping his paw on a board and, with that skill, he mused on religion, learned a number of languages and once asked a noblewoman “Can you wag your tail?”

A slight smile caught at the corners of Mandy’s lips.

He was also said to have requested to serve in the German army because he disliked the French.

Mandy lifted her pencil from the page and sat up a little. An almost imperceptible sigh settled her shoulders as she gazed down, lost somewhere in the past. After a while, she blinked and put her pencil to the page once again. Under the last words she had written, she drew a decisive line. Then she placed the new newspaper extract over her handwritten notes. But before she closed the diary, she turned to the back, where there was a yellowing piece of newsprint. She slid it out, opened it and read the article … again.

Traudl Junge

Born Gertraud Humps, Munich 16 March 1920; Died Munich 11 February 2002

The youngest of Hitler’s personal secretaries, Junge’s final duty for the Nazi dictator was to take down his Last Will and Testament in Berlin’s underground bunker just prior to his suicide in April 1945. The widow of a young officer – Hitler aide, Hans Junge – she claimed she did not know about her employer’s crimes – including the Holocaust – until after the war, and then felt wracked with guilt for having liked “the greatest criminal who ever lived”. Following the capture of Berlin by the Red Army, Junge was interned for six months before returning to her native Bavaria, where she was interrogated by the Americans and freed to integrate herself into post war Germany. She found employment as a secretary for an illustrated paper and later as a journalist and twice resided for short times in Australia where her younger sister still lives. Junge’s attempts to start a new life there with an application for permanent residency, however, were denied due to her Nazi past. Her autobiography, “To the Final Hour”, was recently published and, in addition, she told her story in a documentary, “Blind Spot”, which was shown at the Berlin Film Festival only hours before her death. Filmmaker, André Heller – the son of a Jewish businessman, whose father was a Viennese exile – found Junge, to his surprise, “unbelievably nice”. She agreed to co-operate with him, giving 10 hours of interviews, because she knew she was terminally ill. Shortly before her death she is reported to have said, “Now that I’ve let go of my story, I can let go of my life.” Traudl Junge died of cancer on February 10, 2002 at age 81 and is survived by her sister, Inge.

Mandy closed the book and sat for a moment in the silence. Then she returned the diary to the darkness at the back of the cupboard and closed it inside. The door sliced through the air with a conclusive thud.

The sunlight through the window caught Mandy as she emerged at the bottom of the stairs. She gathered the client journal along with the keys to the feed store for her morning tour of the kennels and called out “Winston!” … “Whitlam!” as she moved towards the door.

A German shepherd and an Airedale terrier bounded through the house, jostling each other in their eagerness. Mandy ruffled their fur in turn, dwelling in a brief moment of thoughtful distraction before stepping out into the daylight. And as she strode towards the building across the yard where lively canine noises anticipated her approach, she marvelled at her life. Her luck.

The thoughts of things and people beyond that sunny summer moment melted from her.

And Mandy smiled. A clean fresh smile. Through eyes that were looking simply at the present.

* * * * * * * *

This story was initially inspired by a number of anecdotal accounts outlining Adolf Hitler’s admiration for dogs and the perspective of the Third Reich on canine potential. With the discovery that the personal secretary of the notorious dictator had spent time in Australia, this story seeks to create a fictional encounter with this mostly obscure but briefly infamous historical figure during one of her 1970s visits as it reveals the canine fascination of the Nazi regime.

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2 responses to “One Summer with the Dogs of War

  • Angela Earls

    What a great story! And how fascinating, the true stories of all those dogs.
    … and good to see those “over the wall” characters popping up here and there – there’s no holding them now they know how to get out!

    • alisonearlsALOUD

      Thanks for visiting on New Year’s Day – so glad you enjoyed the story. I had to find some way to put those dog stories together so I’m glad the end result was an interesting read for you. (Who knows where the ‘Over the Wall’ animals will turn up next!

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