Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Asylum Choir (feat. Leon Russell) -- "Ballad of a Soldier" (1971)

Stray dogs that live on the highway
Walk on three legs
They move too slow to get the message

Hannah, our 13-year-old dog, has osteosarcoma -- an aggressive bone cancer -- in her right foreleg. The cancer has almost certainly spread to her lungs and other organs, and it is very doubtful that she has more than a couple of months to live.

We brought Hannah home from our local humane society shelter when she was six months old. We think she's a Treeing Walker Coonhound. But whatever she is, she is built like a racehorse and is as fast as lightning. She still takes off like she has been shot out of a cannon when you open the door to let her go out in the morning. We have a big yard and try to give her the exercise she craves, but she doesn't really belong in the suburbs -- she should live on a farm and have a pickup truck to ride around in.

When I took her to a veterinary oncologist last month, he suggested an amputation followed by chemotherapy. Many dogs adjust quickly to life with only three legs, and there's no reason to think that Hannah couldn't handle losing a leg. That might give her another year of life -- assuming no complications from the surgery -- but she has already lived longer than dogs of her breed usually live, so there's no guarantee it would extend her life.

My family has decided we're not going to do that. We're not really brave enough to deal with seeing Hannah with three legs, living on borrowed time. It's already very sad knowing that we are going to lose her soon -- seeing her limping so badly is a constant reminder of that hard reality, although she remains very active, has a good appetite, and wags her tail wildly every time any of us so much as look at her.

So we will enjoy Hannah's company during our last family vacation on Cape Cod with her -- our simple, happy, affectionate dog, who seems to have changed very little since the day we brought her home over 12 years ago. In a few days, we will head back home -- my kids will return to school or to work, so she won't get the constant attention she is getting this week.

And one day soon I will take her to our neighborhood vet and tell him to end Hannah's life. I'm not sure how we will know when it is time to do that, but I know that day will come, and likely come sooner rather than later.

I will cry that day -- I'm crying now, just thinking about it -- but life will go on. Pets come and they go. That's just the way it is. If you're going to have pets, you'd better be prepared to say good-bye to them. We've been very lucky with Hannah, who's enjoyed perfect health for 13 years, but her luck -- and ours -- finally ran out.

Eventually we will adopt a new dog, who will give us just as much pleasure and affection as Hannah has. But no matter how wonderful that new dog is -- no matter how much we come to love that dog -- he or she won't be Hannah.

This song may seem like a strange choice to accompany this post. It's from a very obscure album I bought when I was in college, but haven't listened to in years -- I don't have it on CD or in mp3 form. But when Hannah's cancer was diagnosed and the vet recommended amputation, the lines popped into my head immediately.

The rest of the song -- which was written by Leon Russell, who has performed with anyone who is anyone (Jerry Lee Lewis, the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Willie Nelson, etc., etc.) -- is an anti-war song that seems to have been inspired by the My Lai massacre, perhaps the most shameful episode of the Vietnam War.

But while that incident occurred in March 1968, the American public didn't learn about it until journalist Seymour Hirsh broke the story in November 1969. The Asylum Choir II album that included "Ballad of a Soldier" was released in 1971, but recorded early in 1969, according to Wikipedia,which attributes the delay to "legal hassles."  (When in doubt, blame the lawyers.)

I don't know if Russell could have become aware of My Lai prior to Hirsh's story appearing in November of that year. You have to think he had heard something -- either that or he was amazingly prescient. It's hard to believe that he didn't have My Lai in mind when he wrote these lyrics:

And now I stand alone with the charges made
Nowhere to run, not a place to hide

While 26 soldiers were originally charged with criminal offenses for their actions at My Lai, only Lt. William Calley was convicted.

I had no understanding 'til I saw my mother cry
When they told how many babies I had killed   that night
A dozen color photographs inside of a magazine
Told the morbid story like a movie screen

Calley was convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. Babies were killed at My Lai, but I'm not sure if Calley was accused of personally murdering any babies. The Cleveland Plain Dealer published (in black and white) color photographs of dead villagers taken by an army photographer with a personal camera, who later sold the photos to Life magazine.

The general was convicted to get off of the hook
But the President might free me for the chance I   took

No general was convicted of any offense related to My Lai, although the colonel who was in command of the brigade that the My Lai troops were part of stood trial on charges relating to the cover-up of the massacre. (He was ultimately acquitted.) Lt. Calley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, but President Nixon directed that he be released pending his appeal. He eventually served three and a half years on house arrest before prevailing a habeus corpus proceeding. A federal court of appeals reversed the district judge's decision that he should be released, but his sentence was commuted to time served.

Here's "Ballad of a Soldier":

Click here if you want to order "Ballad of a Soldier" from Amazon:


  1. Hey Gary: Beautiful post about Hannah. I'm getting choked up reading about her myself. Be nice to have the chance to meet her.

    I was never a pet person until I got a little lovebird five years ago. Somehow that helped me understand and appreciate pets of all sorts. I have since added an African Grey parrot to the flock, and speaking of pets coming and going, parrots are so long-lived that owners often have to make provision for them in their wills.


  2. Lori Lohman WrightAugust 25, 2010 at 8:35 AM


    After we put Cody down last month, the house was so quiet. We've always had two dogs and now we have none.

    Last week I started talking with my husband about looking for shelter dogs. He seemed to have no interest. A few days later I asked him again why he seemed so disinterested. He said, "Why should I set myself up for another broken heart?" We do it because of the unconditional love an animal gives and the joy they bring into our lives. We have started looking at shelters, and I'm sure we will welcome a new family member or two into our home soon.

    My heart goes out to you and your family during this difficult time. When it is time to say your good-byes to Hannah, you will know. She will tell you.


  3. So sorry for Hannah and your loss. I just came upon her picture by chance as I was surfing the net concerning my own dog. Hannah caught my eye because she had a remarkable resemblance to my dog Pepper,a full-blooded Harrier Hound. Take care, Jenny
    Look up: http://www.hunting-directory.co.uk/directory/Kingsbury_Harriers.htm