hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

January 2, 2014

New Year's photo creates stir

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — Sometimes a photo can speak volumes. Other times, it tells you just what you might not want to hear.

It was the week before Christmas and New Year’s when we’re well into the post-holiday blahs. Gifts have been received and returned. Many trees have been dismantled. The house is getting back into decent shape. That Christmas bonus you were hoping to receive — and didn’t — is now a foregone conclusion.

Perhaps next year.

All that’s left before some sanity is getting through New Year’s Eve and the never-ending drone of football games blaring from the TV. It’s been a marathon, hasn’t it? If I survived the pandemonium of Dec. 31, then New Year’s Day was always one of my favorite holidays. At least the most peaceful.

For years when the children were small, we would head out to Salisbury Beach, walk the sand, smell the salty air, and bask in our thoughts. Then we’d head over to the arcade, cash in a zillion tickets for trinkets and head to a restaurant for our dining pleasure.

One day, after putting the paper to bed, I headed toward my favorite watering hole for a beer. I wasn’t one to drink a lot. A beer now and then was fortifying. And the best stories of all are derived from the local taverns and coffee shops of our community. You sit, you listen, you write.

I was enjoying my brew before heading home when a guy seated next to me interrupted my solitude.

“Hey, aren’t you the Gazette photographer?” he asked.

“Among other things. Been known to write a few stories as well.”

“Man, have I got a tip for you.”

I’ve gotten a ton of these. Sometimes, they explode. Other times, they’re duds. I was all ears.

“I’ve got this St. Bernard that acts human. He’ll do anything you command. The dog’s a natural. Maybe you can drop by the house and snap a photo.”

The guy was no misfit. He was an off-duty cop with plenty of veracity. If he tells me he’s got a talking dog, I might be inclined to believe him. St. Bernards usually have that pathetic look about them — a sad face with deep forlorn eyes.

I needed a New Year’s Eve photo for the paper and thought of an idea. Something rather original.

“Does your St. Bernard drink?”

“Drink? You should see him drink. He’s a two-fisted drinker.”

The dog sold me. I went out and purchased a jug of whiskey and grabbed a beer glass while at it. Then I headed for the guy’s home with delirium on my mind.

“Where’s that mutt?” I chuckled to its owner. “I’m here for the photo.”

For the next half hour, I kept setting up this pose to resemble a hung-over canine with an ice pack on his noggin’. Finally, I got the photo, showing Bernard with one paw on the glass, another by the whiskey, and looking like he had just been through the mill.

The caption said it all: “Drinking and driving do not mix. Stay sober this New Year’s Eve.”

The black and white photo appeared on the front page and certainly made an impact by the response it generated. As to how many lives it might have saved, I could not suspect. No doubt, the ramifications of alcohol were being very well portrayed.

The image went on to do well in photojournalism competitions and was a favorite among exhibit fanciers.

One day, during a “show and tell” at one of the community centers, I was showing this photo and a viewer came forth with an idea.

“Why don’t you pitch it to Seagrams?” he suggested. “If they buy it, they’ll cover their billboards with the photo and you’ll be a rich man.”

No harm in trying a little entrepreneurship. Off went the photo with another caption, “Even dogs enjoy Seagram’s.”

The response I got was “Thanks, but no thanks. The MSPCA would get down on us for exposing animal cruelty, even though it appears quite harmless. We have to be very careful in our business.”

Some years later, I was sitting at my desk when news of Bernard’s demise crossed my path. The owner called and relayed the bad news, sobbing on the phone. He was this man’s greatest friend.

If there’s a place in “Dog Heaven” — like the 1989 animated movie that stole our hearts — no doubt Bernard lived his name and died a true “saint.”