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by on March 10, 2023


by Marco M. Pardi

Untold Stories of Tonio

Everything was different in this strange place, the buildings, the smells, the people, the language, even the rare trees strangely out of place in this world of concrete. Three and a half year old Tonio looked at New York City, still wondering where Rosa was, still unsure of the two women and an older boy he was with. Unwelcome from birth, he had been largely raised by a live-in governess, Rosa, and felt little connection to these people. To him, Rosa was his mother.

But life went on, including yet another move to the downtown center of a large Mid-Western city on the shores of Lake Erie. Then, at five, he was dropped into a boarding military school 140 miles away by train. Although ensconced in 300 acres of largely forest, the land and everything about it seemed undeniably alien. He was not home. Being “the youngest and the smallest” of the boys brought nothing but trouble. His “foreign” name and manner of speaking enhanced his outsider status, his “otherness”, and encouraged other boys to bully him and call him names. Although he never once questioned the origins of his skills, he soon and frequently demonstrated natural fighting ability, with nearly fatal effect at least once.

Circumstances intervened again and his family connections within the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency, combined with their economic and political clout, hastened his Naturalization as a U.S. Citizen, enabling his family to safely take him back to Italy only a few years later, this time to their property in Firenze.

On arrival Tonio’s soul awakened with the deepest and most silent joy. The past few years had been a bad dream. He was home. Everything was right. The sky, the buildings, the people, the smells, the sounds, all of it, even the language of the birds. He felt he would never leave again.

Rosa was somewhere in Roma, the city of his birth, but Elvira and her husband “Bepino”, cook and handyman respectively, quickly became his family along with a woman who spent every day tutoring him and his older brother in preparation for their entry into school. And, of course, his dearest friend and confidant, Petra, a tortoise who had appeared on the property and came instantly to Tonio.

The days and nights, weeks and months, were pure joy. Every experience was more one of remembering than of learning. But then it happened. Tonio’s maternal grandfather, with whom the family was living, was in Roma on business when, one evening, Tonio suddenly became inexplicably tired and went early to bed. His mother awakened him with the news his grandfather had died. But Tonio knew.

Several weeks later the family moved back to the United States, that alien territory. At a new primary school Tonio followed his mother’s urging and told the other kids he was born in Rome, Italy. Soon, the boys started calling him WOP and Dago, neither of which he understood. And in a short time they added Liar, which Tonio could not figure out. Only much later did he find out that his older brother had been telling the other kids they were born in Cleveland.

But this didn’t matter since, at every recess, Tonio went straight to the farthest edge of the playground and sat alone, often gazing at the Moon in the mornings. He hoped to go there someday. Some foolish boys came by and picked fights with him. For a while it seemed an unusual number of boys were falling on their faces or running into things during recess. Foolish boys. Tonio got a bloody nose just once. When he helped a boy to his feet the boy sucker punched him. Lesson learned. When you knock down an opponent, make sure he stays down. No faculty took notice of him since, in those years, no one thought children could experience severe depression.

At home Tonio read voraciously. One book was about an Indian (Native American) boy who built a canoe and paddled through the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence Seaway and into the Atlantic. Tonio began collecting pieces of lumber and nailing them together into what he thought of as a raft. A raft which would carry him home to Italy. He had no idea how he would get the raft to Lake Erie, but that didn’t stop him. And no one noticed anyway.

Years later, in the military, Tonio found himself stationed in North Africa. He still dreamed of going to Italy, but he had developed a deep emotional relationship with the attack dog he handled in his combat security job. He would not leave that dog to pine and wonder in his miserable concrete kennel while he enjoyed himself on leave elsewhere.

After 15 months of nightly handling the dog through hellish weather, injuries, and situations he was notified that he was needed for an off-the-books job in West Germany, his dog to accompany him to the German Hundeschule as his “cover story”. A C-130 flight across the Med is faster than a raft but Tonio hadn’t thought about that. When they arrived in Germany and the rear ramp was opened his dog, secured in a large metal kennel, became active. The air, the scents, the sights, everything was a startling change from the Saharan hellscape. But his dog knew. He had been born and weaned here.

Tonio sat with his dog in the back of a large military truck as they drove for hours to the location of the hundeschule. Once there he brought the dog to his kennel, a marvelous wooden structure enclosed against the weather and including a large, raised wooden bench for sleeping, unlike the chain link cage with concrete floor in Africa.

Tonio was struck dumb by his dog’s reaction. In all those months he had never once seen a tail wag or an expression of joy from his dog. Yet, the dog leaped around the kennel, jumping up to lick his face and squealing with happiness. He was home, and he knew it. Six miserable years in the desert were just a bad dream.

A German kennel master standing nearby wrote him up for “failure to have his dog under control.” Tonio didn’t know how to say, “Fuck You” in German, but gave it his best thought. Knowing his dog would be well fed and housed Tonio settled in to get briefed and ready to begin the mission, for which he had been allocated six weeks.

One of a very few military personnel with the required skills and experience, Tonio accomplished the “executive actions” in three weeks, not six. Thus, he had to immediately collect his dog, board a military truck for a suitable air base, and quickly leave the country. Back to Africa.

As the C-130 ramp came open and the furnace like blast of desert air rushed in his dog was quiet in his travel kennel. And he was quiet as they rode in the back of the truck to the K-9 kennels. Tonio walked him into the chain link and concrete kennel and returned to his barracks.

Over the next few nights, out on solitary patrols far from the base, Tonio noticed his dog was subdued. Oh, the dog was purely professional, listening to the sounds only someone who knows the desert would notice, smelling air currents, stopping to look more deeply into the darkness before moving on. But his responsiveness was percetibly slower, as if he had lost interest. Tonio wondered about this, and he tried to get the dog to tell him.

And then, with an impact greater than any of the firearms Tonio carried, it hit him. The dog WAS telling him. Looking into the dog’s eyes Tonio saw in them the young boy who had been taken from his home, from the woman he thought was his mother, and brought to an alien world only to be brought back to his home and have it snatched away from him again. He saw the years of self exile to the only place he could go: deep within himself. And in that moment Tonio doubled over and sobbed. He fell to the sand and rocked, only dimly aware the dog had rushed to him and was whining and licking the flood of tears from his face. The dog to whom he had brought so much pain was helping him to struggle through his own. The dog whose one mission in life was to detect and destroy human life was covering him with unconditional love. A barely new Moon was watching, perhaps waiting a few nights.

From that night on Tonio devoted every possible moment to understanding what his dog needed and wanted, what would make him happy. Risking Article 15, even court-martial, he used his cold weather desert gear to smuggle the best food he could afford for the dog. His squad leader, a hard bitten former paratrooper who was fully aware of the miserable rations for the dogs, turned a blind eye. A dog who could crush Tonio’s hand with a single bite sat patiently as Tonio hand fed him. And they talked. Night after night they talked. And in that time Tonio laid out a sketchy plan for his future. Regardless of career or circumstances, he would devote every spare dollar and every other form of support to every Non-Human Animal cause, be it Shelter, Sanctuary, Rescue Group, or yet unknown that he could find. And he would not stain these gifts by declaring them on taxes.

Finally Tonio received the notice he knew was coming; he was being transferred back to the United States despite his request to go to Viet Nam. Since the Air Force would not assign an airman to two consecutive Conflict Zones, Tonio would have to serve out a stretch before returning to combat.

Although they had “talked” about this eventuality earlier, Tonio and his dog sat in the kennel training yard as he explained that the day had come. An airplane would take him through several stops back to the United States, probably never to return. Tonio knew his dog would never go home again. There would be no C-130, nor even a raft. One way or another he would be killed and placed in a shallow, sandy grave in the K-9 cemetery in front of the K-9 Unit. And Tonio would dream the rest of his life of ways to return, exhume the dog’s remains, and bring them for burial in Germany.

Dreams usually fade. True love never dies.

  1. Tilly permalink

    There are truly no words that can describe the bond between human and dog. Clearly language is not a requirement for the ability to communicate deeply.

    In our house the running joke ( which really isn’t a joke at all) is that if the house was on fire I’d step over my spouse to save my dog!

    Thanks for this latest greatest Tonio installment!


    • Dana permalink

      Tilly, this reply is from Marco:

      “Thank you, Tilly. I know you speak with truth and authority. I find it almost impossible to understand people who apparently are completely unable to perceive and engage in communication with the living world around them.”


    • Dana permalink

      Tilly, I’m really happy you are enjoying these meaningful stories. They are very dear to me. I’m grateful for you and everyone else along the way who continue to read them and contribute their own thoughts and experiences.

      Your comment also made me laugh. I would have completely understood if my children had chosen to save our family doggie over me. That’s a given!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mea Cicansky permalink

        I’m very glad you are continuing to share the Tonio stories. I eagerly await the next installment when you see fit to share it! Yes indeed, I prefer the company of a dog to that of most people!


  2. Dana permalink

    Marco, sometimes I wish I could travel through time to where Tonio was as a little boy. I would tell him that he was worthy of love and being heard. He was not a nuisance to be ignored and cast aside, belittled and bullied by those who failed to see him for who he really was. It’s clear he was forever an old soul, tremendously gifted and wise beyond his years.

    His tormentors got what they deserved. While Tonio might have been capable of violence, he was never a bully. We know from previous stories he had friends with special needs, and that speaks volumes.

    Petra knew who he was, as did the beloved K-9 Tonio valiantly protected and cared for despite the lack of resources and risk to his military career. While humans will use, abuse, abandon and hurt, leading some to think they are “bad” people, it’s often the non-humans who reassure us that we are decent and good. They do so without saying a word. They love unconditionally, asking for so little while giving so much.

    The homage to “Reflections” was deeply emotional for me: “the youngest and the smallest” of the boys. I will never forget the first time I read it, tears flowing, trying to imagine what it must have been like to experience so much impactful early childhood life change. I felt deeply connected to Tonio then, even though his name had not yet been revealed. That didn’t matter.

    While he may never have recovered the physical remains of his very special K-9 partner and friend, through you he has done something significant here. Sometimes we need to be reminded that non-humans aren’t an extension of us, or tools and vehicles to be used for all sorts of purposes too numerous to list. They have an enormous capacity for love despite some of the worst circumstances while in our care. I may not be here today without the unconditional love of the non-humans who trusted and cared for me.

    Thank you for this beautiful excerpt from Tonio’s Untold Stories


    • Thank you, Dana. I cannot even begin to adequately respond to your deeply perceptive and truly kind comments.

      Somehow those of us “with eyes to see” will continue to extend to others the wisdom and support provided to us by our non-human companions.


      • Dana permalink

        The words are well-deserved, Marco. Before I forget I also wanted to mention Tonio’s connection to the Moon, one of my dearest friends. When I look up, seeing the Moon always gives me a feeling that all is right in that moment, something that remains the same no matter where I am. And I will never stop feeling a sense of awe and wonder at this.

        The portion below spoke to me, and it goes beyond personification as a writing element. It’s a comforting thought to know that there was finally unconditional love for Tonio, for his dog, and that the very same Moon who sees me today was watching over them.

        “Tne dog whose one mission in life was to detect and destroy human life was covering him with unconditional love. A barely new Moon was watching, perhaps waiting a few nights.”


  3. It’s been months since I felt able to respond to one of your posts, but there’s something about Tonio which always speaks to me, teaching me something or touching my heart. Even as I understand intellectually the why of losing your beloved guard dog, it never fails to bring me to angry tears at the unfairness of it all. If Nietzsche was correct, and what doesn’t kill us does indeed make us stronger, then I live among Titans.

    Thank you for being my friend. Even as I struggle to regain use of both my hands and my mind, you give me a reason to continue fighting the battle.


    • Thank you so much, Rose. You are the Gold Standard of courage and endurance. We follow the progress in your recovery and universally derive inspiration from you.

      I am so glad Tonio is continually meaningful for you. His story is sometimes harsh but the impressions you share with us make it worthwhile. I sincerely treasure our long friendship. Marco


    • Dana permalink

      Welcome back, Rose! It brightened my day to read your wonderful comment. i’m grateful for those who contribute, especially when they have so much going on outside of this site. You have reminded and inspired me to keep going, and to remain strong in the face of tremendous hardship.

      Not to sound trite, but there really seems to be strength and safety in numbers. And I know Tonio’s Untold Stories are as precious to you as they are to me. I’m so happy to see my dear friend return. Thanks again.


  4. From private source: Marco, your last story was heart wrenching. These experiences sometimes bring me to tears….this one did.
    I wish I had treated all my pets with the care and love I have for Missy. I think about all of them and often in my thoughts tell them I wish I had done more.


  5. Thank you. Knowing that you see inside the story makes me feel I sat with you and told it to you personally. That brings me comfort.

    I, too, have had circumstances which severely impeded my ability to provide proper care and attention to my non-human companions. I regret those, but I also feel I have learned from them.


  6. Dana permalink

    Marco, here is a comment by a reader in Canada (sent by email):

    “A touching love story in the Tonio saga….”


  7. Thank you, Dana (and the reader): Tonio grew to see these episodes as learning experiences. And although he went on for many years to live a life others would describe as cold blooded, he always kept awareness of and applied his core values on behalf of those less capable than himself. Yes, there were grifters and predators who sought to exploit him, but he came through each of those encounters that much the wiser, and more dedicated than ever.


    • Dana permalink

      Marco, I will share this reply with the anonymous reader from Canada since I’m not certain they read all the comments.

      And I will treasure these words myself as I enter the sea of humanity today.


  8. Lisa permalink

    I have taken far too long to comment on these heartfelt and often heartbreaking stories. Only animal lovers can understand the deep bond, understanding, communication and love that these companions bring into our lives. Thank you for sharing these memories. They fill the heart. I look forward to many, many more Tonio stories.


  9. Thank you, Lisa. I find myself sadly agreeing with your observation that “only animal lovers…”. I think people who fail to recognize the essence of non-human life are like people walking around in their own caskets. They are dead to the world around them.

    Thank you for your encouragement. I will do my best to see what more Tonio can share.


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