The war correspondent and author MacKinlay Kantor wrote several novels on the American Civil War, like Gettysburg and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Andersonville. He also wrote crime stories, having gotten his start in pulp magazines. His story “That Greek Dog” looks at a small Midwestern town in the 1920s as its people grapple with a rising hate group.
Published on August 9, 1941
“He received . . . praise that will never die, and with it the grandest of all sepulchers, not that in which his mortal bones are laid, but a home in the minds of men.”
-Thucydides (more or less).
In those first years after the first World War, Bill Barbilis could still get into his uniform; he was ornate and handsome when he wore it. Bill’s left sleeve, reading down from the shoulder, had patches and patterns of color to catch any eye. At the top there was an arc — bent stripes of scarlet, yellow and purple; next came a single red chevron with the apex pointing up; and at the cuff were three gold chevrons pointing the other way.
On his right cuff was another gold chevron, only slightly corroded. And we must not forget those triple chevrons on an olive-drab field which grew halfway up the sleeve.
People militarily sophisticated, there in Mahaska Falls, could recognize immediately that Mr. Basilio Barbilis had been a sergeant, that he had served with the Forty-second Division, that he had been once wounded, that he had sojourned overseas for at least eighteen months, and that he had been discharged with honor.
His khaki blouse, however, was worn only on days of patriotic importance. The coat he donned at other times was white — white, that is, until cherry sirup and caramel speckled it. Mr. Barbilis was owner, manager and staff of the Sugar Bowl.
He had a soda fountain with the most glittering spigots in town. He had a bank of candy cases, a machine for toasting sandwiches, ten small tables complete with steel-backed chairs, and a ceiling festooned with leaves of gilt and bronze paper.
Beginning in 1920, he had also a peculiar dog. Bill’s living quarters were in the rear of the Sugar Bowl, and the dog came bleating and shivering to the Barbilis door one March night. The dog was no larger than a quart of ice cream and, Bill said, just as cold.
My medical office and apartment were directly over the Sugar Bowl. I made the foundling’s acquaintance the next day, when I stopped in for a cup of chocolate. Bill had the dog bedded in a candy carton behind the fountain; he was heating milk when I came in, and wouldn’t fix my chocolate until his new pet was fed.
Bill swore that it was a puppy. I wasn’t so certain. It looked something like a mud turtle wearing furs.
“I think he is hunting dog,” said Bill, with pride. “He was cold last night, but not so cold now. Look, I make him nice warm bed. I got my old pajamas for him to lie on.”
He waited upon the sniffling little beast with more tender consideration than ever he showed to any customer. Some people say that Greeks are mercenary. I don’t know. That puppy wasn’t paying board.
The dog grew up, burly and quizzical. Bill named him Duboko. It sounded like that; I don’t know how to spell the name correctly, nor did anyone else in Mahaska Falls.
The word, Bill said, was slang. It meant “tough” or “hard-boiled.” This animal had the face of a clown and the body of a hyena. Growing up, his downy coat changing to wire and bristles, Duboko resembled a fat Hamburg steak with onions which had been left too long on the griddle.
At an early age, Duboko began to manifest a violent interest in community assemblage of any kind or color. This trait may have been fostered by his master, who was proud to be a Moose, an Odd Fellow, a Woodman, and an upstanding member of the Mahaska Falls Commercial League.
When we needed the services of a bugler in our newly formed American Legion post and no bona fide bugler would volunteer, Bill Barbilis agreed to purchase the best brass instrument available and to practice in the bleak and cindery space behind his store. Since my office was upstairs, I found no great satisfaction in Bill’s musical enterprise. It happened that Duboko also lent his voice in support; a Greek chorus, so to speak, complete with strophe and antistrophe.
Nevertheless, I could register no complaint, since with other members of the Legion I had voted to retain Bill as our bugler. I could not even kick Duboko downstairs with my one good leg when I discovered him in my reception room lunching off my mail.
Indeed, most people found it hard to punish Duboko. He had the ingratiating, hopeful confidence of an immigrant just off the boat and assured that he had found the Promised Land. He boasted beady eyes, lubberly crooked paws, an immense mouth formed of black rubber, and pearly and enormous fangs which he was fond of exhibiting in a kind of senseless leer. He smelled, too. This characteristic I called sharply to the attention of his master, with the result that Duboko was laundered weekly in Bill’s uncertain little bathtub, the process being marked by vocal lament which might have arisen from the gloomiest passage of the Antigone.
Mahaska Falls soon became aware of the creature, in a general municipal sense, and learned that it had him to reckon with. Duboko attended every gathering at which six or more people were in congregation. No fire, picnic, memorial service, Rotary conclave or public chicken-pie supper went ungraced by his presence.
If, as sometimes happened on a crowded Saturday night, a pedestrian was brushed by a car, Duboko was on the scene with a speed to put the insurance-company representatives to shame. If there was a lodge meeting which he did not visit and from which he was not noisily ejected, I never heard of it. At Commercial League dinners he lay pensive with his head beneath the chair of Bill Barbilis. But, suffering fewer inhibitions than his master, he also visited funerals, and even the marriage of Miss Glaydys Stumpf.
Old Charles P. Stumpf owned the sieve factory. He was the richest man in town; the nuptials of his daughter exuded an especial aura of social magnificence. It is a matter of historical record that Duboko sampled the creamed chicken before any of the guests did; he was banished only after the striped and rented trousers of two ushers had undergone renting in quite another sense of the word. Grieved, Duboko forswore the Stumpfs after that; he refused to attend a reception for the bride and bridegroom when they returned from the Wisconsin Dells two weeks later.
There was one other place in town where Duboko was decidedly persona non grata. This was a business house, a rival establishment of the Sugar Bowl, owned and operated by Earl and John Klugge. The All-American Kandy Kitchen, they called it.
The Brothers Klugge held forth at a corner location a block distant from the Sugar Bowl. Here lounged and tittered ill-favored representatives of the town’s citizenry; dice rattled on a soiled mat at the cigar counter; it was whispered that refreshment other than soda could be purchased by the chosen.
The business career of Earl and John Klugge did not flourish, no matter what inducement they offered their customers. Loudly they declared that their failure to enrich themselves was due solely to the presence in our community of a Greek — a blackhaired, dark-skinned Mediterranean who thought nothing of resorting to the most unfair business practices, such as serving good fudge sundaes, for instance, to anyone who would buy them.
One fine afternoon people along the main street were troubled at observing Duboko limp rapidly westward, fairly wreathed in howls. Bill called me down to examine the dog. Duboko was only bruised, although at first I feared that his ribs were mashed on one side. Possibly someone had thrown a heavy chair at him. Bill journeyed to the Clive Street corner with fire in his eye. But no one could be found who would admit to seeing an attack on Duboko; no one would even say for a certainty that Duboko had issued from the doorway of the All-American Kandy Kitchen, although circumstantial evidence seemed to suggest it.
Friends dissuaded Bill Barbilis from invading the precinct of his enemies, and at length he was placated by pleasant fiction about a kicking horse in the market square.
We all observed, however, that Duboko did not call at the Kandy Kitchen again, not even on rare nights when the dice rattled loudly and when the whoops and catcalls of customers caused girls to pass by, like pretty Levites, on the other side.
There might have been a different tale to tell if this assault had come later, when Duboko was fully grown. His frame stretched and extended steadily for a year; it became almost as mighty as the earnest Americanism of his master. He was never vicious. He was never known to bite a child. But frequently his defensive attitude was that of a mother cat who fancies her kitten in danger; Duboko’s hypothetical kitten was his right to be present when good fellows — or bad — got together.
Pool halls knew him; so did the Epworth League. At football games an extra linesman was appointed for the sole purpose of discouraging Duboko’s athletic ardor. Through some occult sense, he could become aware of an approaching festivity before even the vanguard assembled. Musicians of our brass band never lugged their instruments to the old bandstand in Courthouse Park without finding Duboko there before them, lounging in an attitude of expectancy. It was Wednesday night, it was eight o’clock, it was July; the veriest dullard might know at what hour and place the band would begin its attack on the Light Cavalry Overture.
Duboko’s taste in music was catholic and extensive. He made a fortuitous appearance at a spring musicale, presented by the high-school orchestra and glee clubs, before an audience which sat in the righteous hush of people grimly determined to serve the arts, if only for a night.
The boys’ glee club was rendering selections from Carmen — in English, of course — and dramatically they announced the appearance of the bull. The line goes, “Now the beast enters, wild and enraged,” or something like that; Duboko chose this moment to lope grandly down the center aisle on castanetting toenails. He sprang to the platform … Mahaska Falls wiped away more tears than did Mérimée’s heroine.
In his adult stage, Duboko weighed forty pounds. His color suggested peanut brittle drenched with chocolate; I have heard people swear that his ears were four feet long, but that is an exaggeration. Often those ears hung like limp brown drawers dangling from a clothesline; again they were braced rigidly atop his skull.
Mastiff he was, and also German shepherd, with a noticeable influence of English bull, bloodhound and great Dane. Far and wide he was known as “that Greek dog,” and not alone because he operated out of the Sugar Bowl and under the aegis of Bill Barbilis. Duboko looked like a Greek.
He had Greek eyes, Greek eyebrows, and a grinning Greek mouth. Old Mayor Wingate proclaimed in his cups that, in fact, he had heard Duboko bark in Greek; he was willing to demonstrate, if anyone would only catch Duboko by sprinkling a little Attic salt on his tail.
That Greek dog seldom slept at night; he preferred to accompany the town’s watchman on his rounds, or to sit in the window of the Sugar Bowl along with cardboard ladies who brandished aloft their cardboard sodas. Sometimes, when I had been called out in the middle of the night and came back from seeing a patient, I would stop and peer through the window and exchange a few signals with Duboko.
“Yes,” he seemed to say, “I’m here. Bill forgot and locked me in. I don’t mind, unless, of course, there’s a fire. See you at Legion meeting tomorrow night, if not at the County Medical Association luncheon tomorrow noon.”
At this time there was a new arrival in the Sugar Bowl household — Bill’s own father, recruited all the way from Greece, now that Bill’s mother was dead.
Spiros Barbilis was slight, silver-headed, round-shouldered, with drooping mustachios which always seemed oozing with black dye. Bill put up another cot in the back room and bought another chiffonier from the secondhand store. He and Duboko escorted the old man up and down Main Street throughout the better part of one forenoon.
“I want you to meet friend of mine,” Bill said. “He is my father, but he don’t speak no English. I want him to meet all my good friends here in Mahaska Falls, because he will live here always.”
Old Mr. Barbilis grew deft at helping Bill with the Sugar Bowl. He carried trays and managed tables, grinning inveterately, wearing an apron stiff with starch. But he failed to learn much English except “hello” and “goodbye” and a few cuss words; I think that he was lonely for the land he had left, which certainly Bill was not.
One night — it was two o’clock in the morning — I came back to climb my stairs, stepping carefully from my car to the icy sidewalk in front of the Sugar Bowl. I moved gingerly, because I had left one foot in the Toul sector when a dressing station was shelled; I did not like icy sidewalks.
This night I put my face close to the show window to greet Duboko, to meet those sly and mournful eyes which, on a bitter night, would certainly be waiting there instead of shining in a drifted alley where the watchman prowled.
Two pairs of solemn eyes confronted me when I looked in. Old Mr. Barbilis sat there, too — in his night clothes, but blanketed with an overcoat — he and Duboko, wrapped together among the jars of colored candy and the tinted cardboard girls. They stared out, aloof and dignified in the darkness, musing on a thousand lives that slept nearby. I enjoy imagining that they both loved the street, even in its midnight desertion, though doubtless Duboko loved it the more.
In 1923 we were treated to a mystifying phenomenon. There had never been a riot in Mahaska Falls, nor any conflict between racial and religious groups. Actually we had no racial or religious groups; we were all Americans, or thought we were. But, suddenly and amazingly, fiery crosses flared in the darkness of our pasture lands.
I was invited to attend a meeting and did so eagerly, wondering if I might explore this outlandish nonsense in a single evening. When my car stopped at a cornfield gate and ghostly figures came to admit me, I heard voice after voice whispering bashfully, “Hello, doc,” “Evening, doc. Glad you came.” I was shocked at recognizing the voices. I had known the fathers and grandfathers of these youths — hard-working farmers they were, who found a long-sought freedom on the American prairies, and never fumed about the presence of the hard-working Catholics, Jews and black men who were also members of that pioneer community.
There was one public meeting in the town itself. They never tried to hold another; there was too much objection; the voice of Bill Barbilis rang beneath the stars.
A speaker with a pimply face stood illuminated by the flare of gasoline torches on a makeshift rostrum, and dramatically he spread a dollar bill between his hands. “Here,” he cried, “is the flag of the Jews!”
Bill Barbilis spoke sharply from the crowd: “Be careful, mister. There is United States seal on that bill.”
In discomfiture, the speaker put away his bank note. He ignored Bill as long as he could. He set his own private eagles to screaming, and he talked of battles won, and he wept for the mothers of American boys who lay in France. He said that patriotic 100 per cent Americans must honor and protect those mothers.
Bill Barbilis climbed to the fender of a car. “Sure,” he agreed clearly, “we got to take care of those mothers! Also, other mothers we got to take care of — Catholic mothers, Greek mothers, Jew mothers. We got the mothers of Company C, One Hundred Sixty-eighth Infantry. We got to take care of them. How about Jimmy Clancy? He was Catholic. He got killed in the Lorraine sector. Hyman Levinsky, he got killed the same day. Mr. Speaker, you don’t know him because you do not come from Mahaska Falls. We had Buzz Griffin, colored boy used to shine shoes. He go to Chicago and enlist, and he is wounded in the Ninety-second Division!”
It was asking too much for any public speaker to contend against opposition of that sort; and the crowd thought so, too, and Duboko made a joyful noise. The out-of-town organizers withdrew. Fiery crosses blazed less frequently, and the flash of white robes frightened fewer cattle week by week.
Seeds had been sown, however, and now a kind of poison ivy grew within our midnight. Bill Barbilis and Duboko came up to my office one morning, the latter looking annoyed, the former holding a soiled sheet of paper in his hand. “Look what I got, doc.”
The message was printed crudely in red ink:
We don’t want you here anymore. This town is only for 100 per cent law-abiding white Americans. Get out of town! Anti-Greek League.
It had been shoved under the front door of the Sugar Bowl sometime during the previous night.
“Bill,” I told him, “don’t worry about it. You know the source, probably; at least you can guess.”
“Nobody is going to run me out of town,” said Bill. “This is my town, and I am American citizen, and I am bugler in American Legion. I bring my old father here from Greece to be American, too, and now he has first papers.” His voice trembled slightly.
“Here. Throw it in the wastepaper basket and forget about it.”
There was sweat on his forehead. He wiped his face, and then he was able to laugh. “Doc, I guess you are right. Doc, I guess I am a fool.”
He threw the paper away and squared his shoulders and went downstairs. I rescued a rubber glove from Duboko and threw Duboko into the hall, where he licked disinfectant from his jaws and leered at me through the screen.
A second threatening letter was shoved under Bill’s door, but after that old Mr. Spiros Barbilis and Duboko did sentry duty, and pedestrians could see them entrenched behind the window. So the third warning came by mail: it told Bill that he was being given twenty-four hours to get out of town for good.
I was a little perturbed when I found Bill loading an Army .45 behind his soda fountain.
“They come around here,” he said, “and I blow hell out of them.”
He laughed when he said it, but I didn’t like the brightness of his eyes, nor the steady, thrice-assured activity of his big clean fingers.
On Friday morning Bill came up to my office again; his face was distressed. But my fears, so far as the Anti-Greeks were concerned, were groundless.
“Do you die,” he asked, “when you catch a crisis of pneumonia?”
It was one of his numerous cousins, in Sioux Falls. There had been a long-distance telephone call; the cousin was very ill, and the family wanted Bill to come. Bill left promptly in his battered, rakish roadster.
Late that night I was awakened by a clatter of cream cans under my window. I glanced at the illuminated dial of my watch, and lay wondering why the milkman had appeared some two hours before his habit. I was about to drop off to sleep when sounds of a scuffle in the alley and a roar from Duboko in the Barbilis quarters took me to the window in one leap.
There were four white figures down there in the alley yard; they dragged a fifth man — night-shirted, gagged, struggling — along with them. I yelled, and pawed around for my glasses, spurred to action by the reverberating hysterics of Duboko. I got the glasses on just before those men dragged old Mr. Barbilis into their car. The car’s license plates were plastered thick with mud; at once I knew what had happened.
It was customary for the milkman to clank his bottles and cans on approaching the rear door of the Sugar Bowl; Bill or his father would get out of bed and fetch the milk to the refrigerator, for there were numerous cream-hungry cats along that alley. It was a clinking summons of this sort which had lured the lonely Mr. Barbilis from his bed.
He had gone out sleepily, probably wondering, as I had wondered, why the milkman had come so early. The sound of milk bottles lulled Duboko for a moment.
Then the muffled agony of that struggle, when the visitors clapped a pillow over the old man’s face, had been enough to set Duboko bellowing.
But he was shut in; all that he could do was to threaten and curse and hurl himself against the screen. I grabbed for my foot — not the one that God gave me, but the one bought by Uncle Sam — and of course I kicked it under the bed far out of reach.
My car was parked at the opposite end of the building, out in front. I paused only to tear the telephone receiver from its hook and cry to a surprised Central that she must turn on the red light which summoned the night watchman; that someone was kidnaping old Mr. Barbilis.
The kidnapers’ car roared eastward down the alley while I was bawling to the operator. And then another sound — the wrench of a heavy body sundering the metal screening. There was only empty silence as I stumbled down the stairway in my pajamas, bouncing on one foot and holding to the stair rails.
I fell into my car and turned on the headlights. The eastern block before me stretched deserted in the pale glow of single bulbs on each electric-light post. But as my car rushed into that deserted block, a small brown shape sped bulletlike across the next intersection. It was Duboko.
I swung right at the corner, and Duboko was not far ahead of me now. Down the dark, empty tunnel of Clive Street the red taillight of another car diminished rapidly. It hitched away to the left; that would mean that Mr. Barbilis was being carried along the road that crossed the city dump.
Slowing down, I howled at Duboko when I came abreast of him. It seemed that he was a Barbilis, an Americanized Greek, like them, and that he must be outraged at this occurrence, and eager to effect a rescue.
But he only slobbered up at me, and labored along on his four driving legs, with spume flying behind. I stepped on the gas again and almost struck the dog, for he would not turn out of the road. I skidded through heavy dust on the dump lane, with filmier dust still billowing back from the kidnapers’ car.
For their purpose, the selection of the dump had a strategic excuse as well as a symbolic one. At the nearest boundary of the area there was a big steel gate and barbed-wire fence; you had to get out and open that gate to go through. But if you wished to vanish into the region of river timber and country roads beyond, you could drive across the wasteland without opening the gate again. I suppose that the kidnapers guessed who their pursuer was; they knew of my physical incapacity. They had shut the gate carefully behind them, and I could not go through it without getting out of my car.
But I could see them in the glare of my headlights — four white figures, sheeted and hooded.
Already they had tied Spiros Barbilis to the middle of a fence panel. They had straps, and a whip, and everything else they needed. One man was tying the feet of old Spiros to restrain his kicks; two stood ready to proceed with the flogging; and the fourth blank, hideous, white-hooded creature moved toward the gate to restrain me from interfering. That was the situation when Duboko arrived.
I ponder now the various wickednesses Duboko committed throughout his notorious career. Then for comfort I turn to the words of a Greek — him who preached the most famous funeral oration chanted among the ancients — the words of a man who was Greek in his blood and his pride, and yet who might have honored Duboko eagerly when the dog came seeking, as it were, a kind of sentimental Attican naturalization.
“For even when life’s previous record showed faults and failures,” said Pericles, with the voice of Thucydides, to the citizens of the fifth century, “it is just to weigh the last brave hour of devotion against them all.”
Though it was not an hour by any means. No more than ten minutes had elapsed since old Mr. Barbilis was dragged from his backyard. The militant action of Duboko, now beginning, did not occupy more than a few minutes more, at the most. It makes me wonder how long men fought at Marathon, since Pheidippides died before he could tell.
And not even a heavy screen might long contain Duboko; it is no wonder that a barbed-wire fence was as reeds before his charge.
He struck the first white figure somewhere above the knees. There was a snarl and a shriek, and then Duboko was springing toward the next man.
I didn’t see what happened then. I was getting out of the car and hopping toward the gate. My bare foot came down on broken glass, and that halted me for a moment. The noise of the encounter, too, seemed to build an actual, visible barrier before my eyes.
Our little world was one turmoil of flapping, torn white robes — a whirling insanity of sheets and flesh and outcry, with Duboko revolving at the hub. One of the men dodged out of the melee, and stumbled back, brandishing a club which he had snatched from the rubble close at hand. I threw a bottle, and I like to think that that discouraged him; I remember how he pranced and swore.
Mr. Barbilis managed to get the swathing off his head and the gag out of his mouth. His frail voice sang minor encouragement, and he struggled to unfasten his strapped hands from the fence.
The conflict was moving now — moving toward the kidnapers’ car. First one man staggered away, fleeing; then another who limped badly. It was an unequal struggle at best. No four members of the Anti-Greek League, however young and brawny, could justly be matched against a four-footed warrior who used his jaws as the original Lacedaemonians must have used their daggers, and who fought with the right on his side, which Lacedaemonians did not always do.
Four of the combatants were scrambling into their car; the fifth was still afoot and reluctant to abandon the contest. By that time I had been able to get through the gate, and both Mr. Barbilis and I pleaded with Duboko to give up a war he had won. But this he would not do; he challenged still, and tried to fight the car; and so, as they drove away, they ran him down.
It was 10 a.m. before Bill Barbilis returned from Sioux Falls. I had ample opportunity to impound Bill’s .45 automatic before he came.
His father broke the news to him. I found Bill sobbing with his head on the fountain. I tried to soothe him, in English, and so did Spiros Barbilis, in Greek; but the trouble was that Duboko could no longer speak his own brand of language from the little bier where he rested.
Then Bill went wild, hunting for his pistol and not being able to find it; all the time, his father eagerly and shrilly informed Bill of the identifications he had made when his assailants’ gowns were ripped away. Of course, too, there was the evidence of bites and abrasions.
Earl Klugge was limping as he moved about his All-American Kandy Kitchen, and John Klugge smelled of arnica and iodine. A day or two passed before the identity of the other kidnapers leaked out. They were hangers-on at the All-American; they didn’t hang on there any longer.
I should have enjoyed seeing what took place, down there at the Clive Street corner. I was only halfway down the block when Bill threw Earl and John Klugge through their own plateglass window.
A little crowd of men gathered, with our Mayor Wingate among them. There was no talk of damages or of punitive measures to be meted out to Bill Barbilis. I don’t know just what train the Klugge brothers left on. But their restaurant was locked by noon, and the windows boarded up.
A military funeral and interment took place that afternoon behind the Sugar Bowl. There was no flag, though I think Bill would have liked to display one. But the crowd of mourners would have done credit to Athens in the age when her dead heroes were burned; all the time that Bill was blowing Taps on his bugle, I had a queer feeling that the ghosts of Pericles and Thucydides were somewhere around.
Featured image: Illustration by John F. Gould