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All Choked Up – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  April 29, 2017  /  14 Comments



An Unfortunate Chain of Events

Thomas Calabrese … Pepper was a Brindle Pitbull, black and white in color and almost fourteen years of age. This was old for most dogs especially one of her size and breed and she had her share of health issues which included arthritis and lung cancer.  She was the sole survivor of my original three rescue dogs.

Casey was my first canine; she was a shepherd mix puppy that I found on the street of base housing when I was an employee on Camp Pendleton. I turned her in to the base shelter and when no one claimed her, I adopted her three days later. Casey loved people and lived to go on rides and she didn’t care how far the drive was or how much she had to wait for my return when I ran my errands. She would bark at every large truck and motorcycle that we passed so I affectionately nicknamed her The Barking Horn. She had this internal clock and knew what time I returned home from work so Casey would jump up on the top of couch in the living room until she saw my black Toyota pick-up coming up the street then begin barking in excitement and race to meet me at the back gate. On weekends Casey would accompany me at every given opportunity and she didn’t care if I was just driving down the street or taking a trip of a hundred miles, she wanted to go.

Sam was our second dog, he was a big muscular Staffordshire terrier that I met while volunteering at the Oceanside Animal Shelter. We immediately bonded and I was powerless to resist his charm, soulful eyes and big head so I had to take him home, more for me than for him. He was just a lovable fellow who thoroughly enjoyed crashing the overgrown brush and weeds chasing after coyotes and various types of wildlife. I would find isolated areas and let him run loose knowing that he would only come back after he had completely exhausted himself. Sometimes he would be gone thirty minutes and other times, it would be as long as an hour and when he returned, he would be scratched and cut from his reckless adventure with his tongue hanging out and panting heavily, but he didn’t care, he was a warrior and he was never happier then when he was channeling his wild streak and running free. Unlike Casey he didn’t particularly care for car rides and I believe that he looked at getting in any vehicle as a necessary part of being let loose later. He would sleep soundly through the night, his powerful lungs moving up and down and I could hear his rhythmic breathing from across the room. I often used his muscular body as a pillow or armrest while watching television and he always was content to provide that useful service. Both Casey and Sam have crossed over the “Rainbow Bridge” and I still get emotional when I think about them and the immeasurable pleasure that they brought to my life. I’d like to think that I’m a better man for having known them.

Now Pepper is the only one left and every day that she is still with me is a gift that I do not take for granted.  She does not hear or see very well and cannot get in or out of the car without help and when I take her to an open field for her walk, her gait is unsteady and slow and I have to make sure that she doesn’t wander off in a different direction even though I may only be ten feet from her and yelling loudly to get her attention. Pepper had no particular preference for car rides or running, but she would do both without hesitation if Casey or Sam went first.

She would sit patiently and quietly in the backseat while Casey could hardly contain her excitement and when Sam would run off into the dense foliage, Pepper would happily follow him. She was a follower in every sense of the word and it was in her DNA to get along because she was not an Alpha dog. I’ve learned many things from being a dog owner, but one fact has become glaringly evident to me over the years and that is you can raise three dogs exactly alike and each one will have its own distinct personality.  Every part of Pepper’s existence is now reliant on me and it is a responsibility that I embrace with pleasure and enthusiasm. She is on a special diet which I supplement with vitamins and I give her pain medication every morning and every evening and do my best to make sure that I don’t overlook anything that can improve Pepper’s quality of life.

I made a careless mistake while trying to do too many things at once while not thinking about any one of them in particular. It was early afternoon and I just returned from the store with a load of groceries and while I was putting things away and checking my e-mail messages. I nonchalantly tossed a large chunk of salami to Pepper who was lying on her bed in the garage and when she began choking, I immediately realized that she had swallowed the meat instead of chewing it. Pepper began gagging and foaming at the mouth as she desperately tried to spit out the food while staggering around the garage until she fell over. I picked her up and attempted to perform an improvised version of the Heimlich Maneuver, but that didn’t work so then I tried to open her mouth and pull out the meat, but Pepper’s jaws were clinched too tightly.

I knew that time was running out for Pepper so I picked her up in my arms and gently placed her limp body in the backseat of the car and rushed to the veterinary hospital which was only a couple miles away. Pepper was too weak to walk so two employees brought a stretcher out and carried her directly to the examination room. Since this was where I had taken Pepper previously for her treatment and shots, they had her medical records on file. Her regular vet, Greg Rizzi was off today and a very young Doctor Kenneth Lorre was filling in for him, “I’ve looked at Pepper’s medical records and I think one of her cancerous tumors may have ruptured. You may want to consider putting her down.”

“I don’t think that’s the problem, she was fine until I gave her a piece of meat, it’s stuck in her throat.” I replied.

“Let me do an x-ray then.”

A few minutes passed before Doctor Lorre showed me the x-ray on the illuminated screen, “I don’t see any obstructions, you need to accept the fact that she is dying.”

Once again I was stubbornly opposed to his diagnosis, “I still believe that something is stuck in her throat, you need to check her airway before I make any decisions.”

“I can put her under anesthesia and examine her throat,” Doctor Lorre replied reluctantly, “I think it’s a waste of time, but if that’s what you want.”

“That’s exactly what I want,” I could tell that he was not happy that I questioned his diagnosis, not just once, but twice, but  I was not giving up on Pepper until I was absolutely sure that I had given her every opportunity..

Five minutes later and I was called back to the examining room where I saw a piece of half chewed meat lying next to Pepper’s head on the examining table. She was still under sedation and I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw her chest moving slightly, but Pepper was not completely out of danger yet. The combination of her advanced age, the stress of almost choking to death combined with the anesthesia just might have been too much for her to handle. I was told by one of the assistants to go home and they would call me, when or if, Pepper came out of anesthesia. The minutes turned into two hours and I became too impatient to wait any longer so I called the veterinary hospital and was given the good news that I could pick her up in an hour.

Pepper was still so weak that she had to be carried out to the car and when I stroked her head she barely acknowledged my touch. On the way home I noticed I was getting low on gasoline so I stopped at the ATM at El Camino Real and Mission Avenue to get forty dollars.

My thoughts were elsewhere when I punched in my PIN number and was just about ready to withdraw the cash, when everything went black and I immediately felt something hard hitting me. A blanket had been thrown over my head and I was struggling to block the punishing blows and free myself at the same time, which was a failure on both counts. I fell to the ground and my assailant’s boots struck my ribs and I gasped out in pain. I had reconciled myself to the fact that I was not going to escape so I covered my vital organs and waited for the beating to stop.

Suddenly I heard a vicious growl and a loud scream then heard the sound of footsteps fading off in the distance. When I pulled the blanket off my head, I caught a glimpse of a large man limping across El Camino Real then felt Pepper next to me, but how could this be? She could barely move a few minutes ago, but when she saw me in trouble she found the strength to jump out the window of the car and chase away my assailant.

I noticed something in Pepper’s mouth, and when I pulled it out, I saw that it was the rear pocket off a pair of jeans and crumpled up inside the piece of cloth was a business card; Surf and Sand Saloon, 129 Coast Highway, Oceanside, Ca.

As a former Marine who served three deployments in Afghanistan, I struggled to deal with issues from my time in combat and I thought I had everything under control, but this attack resurrected some vivid and disturbing memories.

That evening I made sure that Pepper was walked, fed and resting comfortably in her dog bed before leaving for the Surf and Sand Saloon. This was one of the few times that I was glad that I wasn’t married or involved in a serious relationship because I would have hated to lie or try to explain my ambiguous feeling or vague intentions to someone else when I didn’t understand them myself. I kept hearing two voices inside my head, one telling me to turn around, and the other encouraging me to proceed ahead.

The bar was nothing much to look at from the outside, the owners didn’t even spring for a neon light sign to illuminate the faded lettering and was even less impressive on the inside; dark, dreary eight wooden tables, all of them empty at this time and a bar with eight patrons hunched over it. Their heads turn in unison, when I entered and that was my first clue that this was a locals only kind of place and I was not welcome. I found a table that offered a view of the door and sat down.

The bartender called out in a gruff voice, “What do you want?”

“A beer,”

“What kind?”

“Anything in a bottle,” I didn’t the trust the bartender with anything that was open or poured.

“You need to come and get it, we got no waitresses.”

I was definitely out of my element in this bar and from my past experiences at various duty stations while I was in the Corps I quickly determined that these were hard living and hard drinking individuals. I had been there two hours and had barely finished one beer which did not endear me to the bartender, “If you’re not going to drink, you might as well take off.”

“Point taken,” I replied defensively and pulled out a twenty dollar bill and dropped it on the table, “bring me three more beers then.” The bartender mumbled something under his breath and walked away.

When he walked through the front door, I knew it was him. There was no evidence to support my belief, unless you consider the distinctive limp of his left leg, which was circumstantial at best. He stood about six foot five inches tall and must have weighed about two hundred and eighty pounds, a big slab of beef, whose very presence gave the impression that he was a purveyor in the art of overindulgence; drink, food and violence. He wore a gray t-shirt with a black leather vest and his blue jeans were faded, torn and stained. My eyes drifted down to his steel toed boots and I grimaced when I remembered the viciousness of the kicks to my midsection. He had a thick Fu Manchu salt and pepper mustache and stubble of a beard. His face was creased, not wrinkled from age, but worn from self- inflicted abuse and disregard for personal hygiene and his eyes were mud brown and emotionless. I guessed he was about forty years of age. I pulled out my cellphone and inconspicuously videoed his movements. Ten minutes later, I left the bar, but did not go home. I waited in my car until I saw my assailant leave the bar and walk over to a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

He got on it and drove north on Coast Highway and I followed at a distance where I would not arouse his suspicions, but lost visual contact near Oceanside High School.

I compiled a checklist then started off by having the windows of my car tinted dark enough to do surveillance without being noticed and purchased an untraceable pre-paid cell phone. My next two stops were the Home Depot on Vista Way where I purchase a four foot length of wood that would suffice as a club, then stopped off at Primo Foods on Vista Way where I bought two dozen chili peppers. I continued routine surveillance for the next two weeks, but each time that I followed the motorcycle, I lost contact on Garfield Street in West Oceanside so I purchased a GPS tracker, the kind that people use for locating lost pets. When my assailant went inside the Surf and Sand Saloon, I put several dabs of superglue on the tracker and secured it behind his license plate. This time when I followed him, the GPS lead me down an alley and walkway to a rundown house at the end of a cul de sac with a detached garage that had been converted to a small apartment. There were several motorcycles parked in the backyard which meant that the man did not live alone, which complicated things somewhat, but did not deter me. I made a hasty exit before I was noticed.

The Marine Corps rifle squad was on routine patrol in a bombed out town when they came under intense fire. One Marine was wounded by a sniper and went down in a doorway and several enemy fighters rushed out and dragged him inside. The Marine attempted to fight back, but he was outnumbered ten to one and he was brutally beaten to death. When I awakened in bed, I was sweating profusely. My life was turning dark and flashbacks of my time in combat were growing more violent and disturbing so I knew I had to end this before it ended me. I could not go through life feeling like a victim.

I owned several handguns that I used for target practice and didn’t want to use one, but at the same time, I didn’t want to be in a position where I was being shot at without protection so I reluctantly put my Glock 17 and an extra clip in my pack.  I put the chili peppers in the blender and when they were liquefied, I poured the contents into a jar. I wrapped duct tape with steel washers around my hands to protect my knuckles. I filled three small empty plastic water bottles with gasoline, placed a rag inside each one and tapped the openings to prevent any leakage. I looked at Pepper as I left, “Wish me luck, it ends tonight.”

When the man parked his Harley outside the bar, I waited until he was inside then walked over and poured the chili pepper juice on the handle grips and inside his helmet. This time when he left at 11:45PM, I knew exactly where he was going. I heard his curses and growls of discomfort even before I opened the wooden gate. He had the garden hose on full force and was washing off his head, face and hands.

I held up the blanket in my left hand and while I hid the club behind my back in my right, “Look familiar?”

Did you do this to me?” He demanded as he rubbed his face.

“Surprise attacks can really be aggravating,” I responded.

In anger he reached for a knife in his pocket and lunged at me, but I hit his hand with the club and the knife flew across the yard. In a blinding rage, the large man did a bull rush at me so I dropped the wooden stick and struck him with my steel reinforced fist, but it hardly affected him. I hit him several more times in the face as the people inside the house opened the back door to investigate the commotion. When one of the men saw what was happening, he reached for a shotgun and began firing wildly in our direction. My assailant panicked when he felt the pellets hitting all around us and charged through the wooden fence in an effort to escape and stumbled into the street where he was struck by a passing car. I returned fire with my pistol as I took cover behind a stack of five gallon cans. I lit one of the rags and tossed a Molotov Cocktail in the direction of the house. When it ignited, I lit the other two, tossed one into the garage and dropped the other next to the cans and ran off when the smoke thickened enough to obscure my movements. When I got to the street, I pulled out the pre-paid cellphone and dialed 911, “There are gunshots and a fire at 349 Garfield.”

My vehicle was parked down the street so I got in it and waited for the fire and police vehicles to pass by before driving home. Pepper seemed to sense that the nightmare was over because she walked over to me and raised her paw as soon as I entered the front door. Our lives can change in an instant and not all changes are good ones, but what ultimately defines us is how we react to the negative ones. Only time will tell if I made the right decision in this particular chapter of my existence.

When the story was printed in the San Diego Union Tribune, it gave the name of my assailant as Leo Gibson, a career felon with outstanding warrants. There were also two under-aged girls that were being held against their will and stolen property that implicated the residents in numerous robberies and home invasions in San Diego and Orange County.  It took some time to regain some measure of normalcy in life, but every now and then when I look at Pepper, I still get… All Choked up.

The End





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  1. Mona says:

    This was such a wonderful story and based on real facts, or seemingly so. Being a dog lover myself, it was good to hear about these wonderful dogs and their journey in life!

  2. Joe says:

    I love good dog stories. Thanks.

  3. Guy says:

    So much of this story sounds true…I wonder which part is fiction.

  4. Kyle says:

    A change of pace from Tom’s usual stories, but it still kept my attention.

  5. Ronald Pickett says:

    Great story Tom. For awhile I thought you were going non-fiction on us!

  6. Josh says:

    If you are a dog lover, this is a story you’ll like…I know I did.

  7. Mike says:

    Not my favorite…but still very good

  8. Pat Madden says:

    Good story Tom. Was this you?

  9. Janet says:

    Wow – that was a wild ride!! At first I thought sure that Pepper was in trouble; but, so glad she muscled back to save the day. I love when justice gets served!!

  10. Cary says:

    What a chain of events…one unfortunate incident can take a person down a dangerous path

  11. Steve says:

    Good story… I really liked it

  12. Wolf says:

    Too much dog for me. I am waiting for the sequel when the police and fire review security cameras and figure out who burned down a block of Oceanside. He then has to fight Leo Gibson and cronies when he too is sent to jail.

  13. Greg says:

    Any dog and action story is going to interest me, this was no exception…Good job

  14. John Michels says:

    Nice dog story Tom

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