It was the Summer of ’81 when I first met Don. I was working as a freelance journalist at the time, looking for any story that would help me pay the next round of bills. Seeing that nothing interesting was coming my way, my Uncle had suggested I get in a car and visit an old friend of his. I asked him what I could expect to find out when I got there. He refused to tell me while promising that, if I made the journey, his friend Bob would make sure it was worth my while.
I arrived a little after midday, pulling up to ‘Bob’s Autowerkes’, where Bob was scratching out a living repairing old German cars. He came out to meet me. He shook my hand and told me I was the spit of my Uncle when he was my age.
‘My Uncle said that you had a story for me.’
‘That I do lad, that I do. Ever heard of Hundesprechschule Asra?’
‘No.’ I was aware that Bob and my Uncle had fought in Germany during the war, but I have never had an ear for languages.
‘What if I were to tell you that in the next room I’ve got one of the best kept secrets of Nazi Germany?’
‘I’d tell you that I was very interested, and then I’d implore you to tell me more.’
‘In the next room I’ve got one of the best kept secrets of Nazi Germany.’
‘How interesting. Please, go on.’
He rummaged around for a key and then signalled for me to follow him to the back of the building. After unlocking the door he waved me into the dark room, followed me in and then flipped the light-switch.
Before me sat an ancient Great Dane lying on a filthy mattress. And nothing else.
Bob must have seen how crestfallen I looked.
‘Go ahead, ask him something.’
I looked down at the dog. The dog looked back up at me.
‘Could you tell me a joke?’ I asked wearily.
‘I have no nose,’ said the dog. ‘This is of course factually inaccurate, but for comedic effect I vould ask you to suspend your disbelief. “How do you smell?” you may vell ask. My answer vould be that I can talk and therefore ask you for any pertinent information regarding the various odours around me.’
I felt the colour drained from my face.
‘Don’t look so shocked,’ said Bob, ‘you can hardly expect a German to have a good sense of humour.’
‘My name is Don, it is a pleasure to meet you.’
He gave me a paw, which I shook in a daze.
‘I’ve told him all about you, but why don’t I give you two some time alone so you can get to know each other better.’
I mumbled something to the affirmative.
‘I can see that you are quite taken aback, perhaps you would like me to tell you of how I came about the remarkable ability to speak?’
The dog, Don, told him of his training under the Nazis, first in language then in combat. He said that he had met Hitler, and had a relationship with actress Zarah Leander’s dog, but had only once seen combat.
‘What did you do after the war?’
‘I vorked for the United Nations, there vere a lot of loose lips in the Third Reich, I had overheard a lot of secrets.’
‘That is incredible!’
‘If you like that, I also spent some time with NASA. First as an astronaut and then, later, as a translator.’
‘Do not look so surprised, there vas a period vhere individuals who could speak both German and English vere in high demand in the U.S. space agency. Later, I returned home and became involved in film. I vas, how you say, the go-to-dog of German cinema.’
‘I don’t think I would say go-to-dog.’
‘Nonetheless, it is true. Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders: they all loved me.’
‘And your Nazi past didn’t harm your reputation with the the darlings of New German cinema?’
‘Vell, if I’m honest, it vas mostly non-speaking roles. Nobody knew I could talk. I did vonce have a long conversation vith Fassbinder vhen he vas tripping von time. He vas trying to come to terms vith being an only child. As von of a litter of seven, I fear I vas not much help to him. He never mentioned it again.’
‘You have led a remarkable life, and so long: you must be very old.’
‘Ja, I am the product of a science unfettered by ethics. A science unbound is a science that gets results, if nothing else. I vill have a good few years left in me.’
‘Simply fantastic,’ I said as I finally found Bob fixing an engine.
‘Would you like to buy it?’
‘You are willing to sell this amazing animal, a talking dog, a veteran of World War Two, who has worked for the U.N., NASA and Werner Herzog, you are willing to sell him for ten pounds? It’s unbelievable. I can’t believe it.’
‘I wouldn’t. I mean he talks a good game, but he didn’t do half of that stuff.’
I stood silent, gobsmacked.
‘Plus, you know,’ he whispered, ‘…he’s a racist Nazi son-of-a-bitch.’