Are you looking at me?
Thomas Calabrese — Roy Trent grew up in Gladstone, Missouri, a small town located 15 miles north of Kansas City, Missouri. His father, Ray owned a small heating and air conditioning business. It was a family enterprise that employed his mother, sister, older brother and an uncle. It was a successful enterprise and most of the income came from routine service calls of regular customers. In the Midwest, the weather could be bitter cold or scorching hot and the residents of the area needed heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer so there was job security in the heating and cooling industry. It was an honest business built on a reputation for doing a good job at fair price.
There was definitely a place for Roy and he couldn’t begin to count the number of times that he wished that he was more like his older brother Ron, who was mechanically inclined and completely content to stay in the area and do the same work day after day. However, Roy was restless and probably had a case of seasonal affective disorder, which is defined as having significant mood changes related to the changing seasons. Roy did his best to fit in, he worked at the business doing manual labor chores and even learned elementary electrical principles from his brother, but his heart wasn’t in it.
From the time he was a boy, Roy fantasized about living in California. The beaches, warm weather and people being outside doing a variety of activities, all beckoned the young man to come west. Every television show and movie filmed set in California was one more incentive for Roy to leave. He knew that his parents would try to talk him out of it, but hoped he could convince them how important this was for him. They would have the facts on their side and all Roy had was a deep yearning to see the world. The main thing that was holding him back was his dog, Cody, a jet black German Shepherd that he had raised from a puppy. He couldn’t leave him behind. The average life expectancy for this breed was between 10 and 13 years and Cody had just turned 15 and was showing the effects of old age. Roy put Cody on special supplements and organic foods, but time moves on for all of God’s living creatures and it eventually became time for Cody to journey over the rainbow bridge. (The term ‘rainbow bridge’ is believed to have originated in several works of poetry from the 1980s and 1990s that were meant to help relieve deceased pet owners from the pain of their loss. According to poems, upon death, the pet finds itself in a lush, green meadow filled with sunshine.) The old dog peacefully passed away in his sleep with his master by his side.
Roy was inconsolable and broken-hearted and spent the next week trying to come to terms with his grief and waiting for the pain in his heart to stop hurting. Anybody who has ever had a dog and lost him could empathize with the young man. The family also felt the loss because they loved Cody as well. Roy went to see his former high school counselor and music teacher, John Joseph McTavish for a little objective advice. He could always speak freely with Mr. McTavish and even though he was no longer in high school, the two remained friends. Roy told Mr. McTavish about Cody while trying to retain his composure.
McTavish offered his sincere condolences. “Dogs are our family…we grieve for them like anybody else that we love and lose.”
“I’m leaving, now that Cody is gone, there’s no reason for me to stay.” Roy said.
“Wherever you go, there you are…make sure that you’re running to something and not away from something. I guess you could pack your car and head west and hope for the best, like a piece of trash blowing from gutter to gutter.” McTavish said, “Is that what you want?”
As the days passed, Roy spent a lot of time thinking about what he was going to do. He had a few thousand dollars saved and a reliable Toyota pick-up, so he could drive to California if he wanted. Once there, he would rent a room and find a job. It was June 15th and he would leave after Labor Day. That would give him enough time to save more money and narrow down where he wanted to go in California, but it had to be somewhere in the southern part of the state and close to the beach.
His family was installing a new air conditioning unit at a clothing store located on Grand Avenue in downtown Kansas City. It was 11AM and Ray called to his son from the roof. “Why don’t you head over to Mr. Mort’s Sandwich Shop and pick up our lunch order?”
Roy responded. “Sure thing.”
While walking to the eating establishment, Roy passed a recruiting station. In the window were brightly colored posters advertising the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. Roy stopped to look at each one. A Navy recruiter walked out and introduced himself. “I’m Chief Petty Officer Scott Michaels, are you interested in serving your country?”
Roy responded. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“Come in and I’ll give you some details.”
“I’m kind of rushed for time, I’m picking up lunch for a construction crew. They’ll be mad at me if I don’t come straight back.”
Chief Petty Officer Michaels smiled. “That’s a sign of a good military man, responsibility and doing the job that you were assigned. I’m here five days a week and if you ‘re working, I’ll even come in on the weekend…how does that sound?” Chief Petty Officer handed Roy his business card, “Call me.”
Roy glanced at the card and put it in his pocket. “Thank you, sir.”
“Sir, I like that…you definitely have potential.”
Two weeks later, Roy called the Navy recruiter and set up an appointment. After several more meetings, Roy explained that he didn’t have any interest or aptitude for anything too technical.”
Chief Petty Officer thought for a moment and suggested. “What about the Master at Arms program?”
“Master –at –Arms are security and force protection professionals who perform anti-terrorism, force protection, physical security, and law enforcement duties on land and at sea.” Chief Petty Officer Michaels explained.
Roy replied. “That’s sounds interesting.”
Eight months later, Roy had finished his training at Lackland Air Force Base and was stationed at Bremerton Naval Base in the state of Washington. The summers were short, the area got a lot of rain and there were numerous overcast days. This is not exactly what he had envisioned for himself when he enlisted. Roy still wanted to get to Southern California and didn’t think his command would approve a transfer. The answer came to him when he was working out at the base fitness center. Roy saw a flyer about trying out for the Navy Seals, he did some research and found out that 1,000 active duty sailors are given the opportunity to attend SEAL training. This would get him to San Diego so he applied. While waiting for an answer, Roy increased his swimming and running regiment.
After being accepted into the program and the difficult training began, Roy regularly thought to himself, ‘This is a hell of a price to pay to get to California’. Using the one-step-at-a-time and one–day-at-a-time philosophy, he made it through by not looking too far ahead. There was another bit of good news, Roy was so focused on the task at hand that the weather was the last thing on his mind.
Two years later, while on a six month deployment to Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa with his team Roy received word that his friend and mentor, John McTavish was killed in an auto crash. Because of his commitment to the mission, he couldn’t return for the funeral.
It was the last week before they were scheduled to return to the states and the Navy Seals were in the process of packing up their gear. Naval Intelligence received credible information that Ahmad Umar, leader of Al-Shabaad was in the area. This was too good an opportunity to pass up so the special operators geared up and boarded two helicopters and headed for the last known location of Umar. While coming down the trail, the Americans spotted an enemy force of 40 well-armed individuals at the same time that they were observed. The gun battle began and enemy terrorists began failing. One of the Seals was hit and Roy rushed to his assistance. While protecting his injured comrade and shielding his body with his own, Roy took the full brunt of an explosion from a rocket propelled grenade that caused him to suffer a traumatic brain injury. The effects were not immediate and while he felt disoriented, Roy considered himself lucky that he wasn’t killed.
Once back in California, Roy started experiencing migraine headaches. They were severe enough that Roy could no longer remain an active member of his team. He tried several treatments, pills, nasal spray, injections and monoclonal antibodies, but had limited success. The side effects were nausea and vomiting, which was almost as bad as the headaches. Reluctantly he accepted a medical discharge and decided to approach his problem from a more organic perspective. With the help of the Veterans Administration and the Disabled American Veterans Association, Roy found a room to rent from retired Navy Commander Barry Winchester in the Henie Hills area of Oceanside.
Roy went on a strict diet that consisted of no processed foods with heavy amounts of vegetables and one gallon of water a day to flush out the toxins in his system.
He began taking yoga classes and doing meditation and went to the Harmony Wellness Center in Escondido twice a week for acupuncture. His therapist, Anne Newland looked at his medical chart then asked, “How are things going?”
Roy sighed. “Better, but I’m still not where I want to be. The headaches are less frequent, but when I do get them, they are just as severe, so that’s something, right?”
“It’s progress. Have you heard about Sanctuary to Seals, Soldiers and Marines?”
Roy responded. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s a program where they match rescue animals with combat veterans. Would you like to have a dog?”
“It’s been a while since I’ve had one…but yeah I think I would.” Roy responded.
Ann explained the procedure, “I’ll submit your name as a candidate for a therapy dog. Why don’t you go by the facility and see if there are any animals that you like,” Ann handed Roy a business card, “Here’s the address, it’s in the Ocean Ranch Business Park.”
When he arrived at the small warehouse, Roy heard barking and went inside where several men and women were working with the dogs while some animals were playing in a fenced area out back. A man about the same age as Roy walked up and introduced himself. “I’m Frank LaBianca, how can I help you?”
“Ann Newland suggested I take a look around.” Roy answered.
Frank smiled. “Are you Roy Trent?”
“Make yourself at home and thank you for your service.” Frank said.
Roy responded. “Thank you for doing this.”
Roy watched the volunteers working with the dogs and heard an unusual sound coming from the back of the property…it was kind of a cross between a soft murmur and a harmonious whistle. “What’s that sound?”
“Very strange…we usually get our dogs from shelters or rescue organizations, but this morning when we arrived, there was this dog sitting in the exercise area. Nobody knows how he got in, but he won’t let anybody get near him.”
“Mind if I take a look?” Roy asked.
Frank warned. “We don’t know anything about him so exercise the appropriate caution,”
The dog tilted his head from side to side, as if to express playful curiosity but never took his eyes off Roy who joked, “You looking at me?”
The dog raised his right paw and a made a soft sound as Roy moved closer. He remained still and Roy took that as a sign to Roy to sit down next to him. A serene calmness quickly engulfed him. Frank saw the two sitting together and approached. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that dog was waiting for you.”
“Or maybe that I was waiting for him to come along” Roy said.
Frank said. “We haven’t trained him and we don’t know anything about his health or his vaccination record. If you take him, you’ll be starting from scratch.”
Roy made eye contact with the dog and asked. “It’s your call…do you want to go with me?”
Roselyn Sanchez walked over and interjected. “This could be a lost dog…we don’t want to give somebody’s pet away.”
“She’s right.” Frank agreed.
“No problem, how do you want to do this?” Roy asked.
Roseyln could not get close enough to use her handheld scanner so she handed it to Roy who scanned the dog for a microchip. (A microchip contains a registration number and the phone number of the registry for the particular brand of chip.) He handed the scanner back to Roseyln and she commented. “I’ll make a call and see what I can find out.”
An hour passed before Rosalyn returned and explained what she found out. “I got the owner’s cellphone number from the registry and called him. The dog belongs to a Marine stationed on Pendleton. He told me that he got a divorce and his wife left the state and was in the process of trying to find a good home for the dog when it ran off. I assume the animal sensed what was happening and decided to find a new owner. I told him about our organization and he relinquished ownership. He also said, if he goes to a veteran, that’s even better because he’s a very unusual animal. Tiffany, at Surfside Animal Hospital is going to send us his medical records.”
Frank added. “Looks like you found yourself a dog.”
“Did he tell you what his name was?” Roy asked.
“J.J.” Rosalyn said.
“J.J. McTavish.” Roy murmured.
“What was that?” Frank asked.
Roy responded. “I had a friend named J.J.”
This fortuitous meeting between Roy and J.J. whether it was destiny or chance, would forever change Roy’s life in ways that he could never imagine.
First thing that Roy noticed were that his migraine headaches were a thing of the past. In fact, it was just the opposite, he was clear headed and focused. When he awakened in the morning, the first thing that Roy saw was J.J. lying next to him. He started the day with this statement, ‘Good morning, J.J. McTavish.” J.J. would softly growl to acknowledge Roy and place his paw on his arm.
If that was unusual then what followed really amazed Roy. He was a fair guitar player, actually he was more like mediocre, but was light years away talent-wise from iconic and gifted guitar players like, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Jim Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. It helped Roy to relax and that was good enough for him. Slowly he started getting really proficient with the instrument and started watching musical performances on YouTube. While playing along with the videos, J.J. harmonized using a variety of sounds that included, growls, purrs, whistling and other noises that seemed impossible to be coming from a dog. This reinforced what Roy already believed, J.J. McTavish was no ordinary animal.
While playing the song, Layla with J.J. harmonizing, Barry Winchester overheard them and knocked on the door. Roy answered it. “Hi Barry, how are you?”
Barry responded. “I heard the music and…
“I’m sorry, we’ll keep it down,” Roy looked over at J.J. “You heard him…not so loud.”
J.J. raised his paw to apologize.
“That’s not why I’m here. I’ve been listening to you and J.J. for the last few weeks and you’re good.”
“Thanks.” Roy responded.
Barry re-emphasized his point, “When I say good, I mean professional good. You’re making the kind of music that people pay to hear. You’ve got a unique sound and the fact that you’ve got J.J. as your partner makes it even more special. I’m no music producer, but I know what I like and I’m willing to bet that other people will like it too.”
Roy didn’t know how to respond so he shrugged, “It’s J.J. not me, I’m just backing him up.”
“You’re a team, and being a former Seal, you know the value of teamwork. I volunteer at the Veterans Center and there’s a poster advertising, Veterans Got Talent. I think you should enter.”
The event was being held at the Junior Seau Pier Amphitheatre a public entertainment and recreation complex located at the foot of the Oceanside Pier. Anybody who was active duty, retired or a dependent of a military individual was eligible to enter. Roy chose two songs, Bolero and the Good, Bad and the Ugly theme song.
J.J. was equipped a wireless microphone and stood off to the side as Roy began to play. The audience listened intently as the music filled the amphitheater. J.J. knew instinctively when to join in and he moved around the stage like a seasoned performer.
The audience was spellbound and sat silently when the first song was completed. Thinking they didn’t like it, Roy turned to J.J. “Let’s get this over with and get out of here.”
J.J. nodded and Roy started to play the Good, Bad And The Ugly while J.J. supplied the sound effects. When they were finished, you could have heard a pin drop, it was that quiet. Roy and J.J. quickly got offstage and were ready to go home when they heard uproarious applause. Assuming that it was for some other act, they kept moving. One of the event organizers caught up with them and asked, “Where you going?”
Roy responded. “Home.”
The event organizer said. “That applause is for you. They are going to tear this place apart if you don’t go back out there. Everybody was on their feet, yelling and applauding when Roy and J.J. appeared. Roy began playing, Dust in the Wind and J.J. joined in and the audience was swept away by the the musical duo.
The pair got one million hits in the first seven hours on YouTube and ten million over the next three days. They became overnight celebrities and were suddenly in great demand. With Barry’s help, they got theatrical agent Marsha Noonan to represent them. Roy made it emphatically clear where his priorities were. “We’re pro-military, pro-police and pro-animal and not into any woke stuff.” J.J. barked his approval.
Over the next few months, Roy and J.J. performed in several USO shows in the area and were the main entertainment at a fundraiser for the animal sanctuary. They were offered a steady engagement at the The Landings in Carlsbad. It was only two evenings a week and the pay was excellent. Roy and J.J. filled the establishment with exuberant patrons. They were also booked for a two-week engagement at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Roy simply called their act, McTavish.
It was a good life, but for a former Navy Seal like Roy Trent it felt more like a well-paying hobby than a career. He voiced his concerns with his trusty companion, who was always willing to listen, “I’ve got no right to complain, but I need to get back into the action…not combat exactly, but something. Got any ideas?”
That night, Roy had a vivid dream and the answer was clear to him by the crack of dawn. He went on line and filled out the application to become a volunteer for the San Diego Search and Rescue Unit. This was another piece of the puzzle that fit into place in the ever-evolving life of the former special operator called Roy Trent.
Roy grew to like entertaining people and wouldn’t have continued if he thought J.J. didn’t enjoy it too. He remained committed to the primary mission of helping people, especially other veterans and animals. When his focus occasionally wavered because fame, fortune and various responsibilities diverted his attention, J.J. was always there to ground him and guide him back to their chosen path.
Every morning started off the same way for the dynamic duo. J.J. would be sitting on the bed, tilting his head from side to side as if he was reading his partner’s mind. Roy would awaken to the spiritual energy in his heart as if it was heaven had given him his own internal alarm clock. He would reach out without opening his eyes and his hand would instinctively be drawn to the head of his canine companion where it gently rested.
Roy already knew the answer but still said, “J.J. McTavish, are you looking at me?”
– Work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance
The Veterans Writing Group of San Diego County invites all writers to join us at our monthly meetings. Veterans and Non-Veterans are equally welcome. For more information go to our website: www.veteranswritinggroup.org