Being 55 plus years old now, and looking reflectively back at my life, I cannot remember a time where I was dog-less. I have always been dog-more, not less. I have my reasons for always having at minimum one dog panting nearby, deep seated, in the blood and marrow, reasons. You see, I would not be here today if it wasn’t for a black as coal lab mix named, Phoenix.
That dog and his unwavering love and his powerful bred-in need to watch over me is the reason I got to grow up, fall in love, see both of my wonderful kids be brought kicking and screaming into this world and now, for me to start this sometimes disconcerting but always interesting process of growing older.
I fell through the ice on the Yellowstone River when I was 8 years old. As I was submerged and skittering along, looking up through the ice, too scared of dying to notice the bone chilling water (yes, even an 8 year old can realize with all certainty that they are about to die) I was hearing my father’s words, the words he had said very sternly to me just before I had traipsed through the knee deep snow down to the river, “Do not go out on the ice. It’s warming outside and it is starting to thin.” I remember those words like it was yesterday.
As I was clawing at the ice above me, being taken down stream by the current, I kept seeing a dark shadow above me through the ice, flitting frantically this way and that, but unerringly following me as I went. My ears were filled with frigid water, pounding with the sound of my heart beating insanely fast and my lungs felt like they were about to explode in my chest. At eight, I was very close to saying goodbye to my short life and I realized and regretted this as well as any adult who’s lived a long life. And as I flowed downstream under the ice I was abruptly halted by something smashing into the back on my head, hit me hard, a large rock maybe, trying to end my awareness of my pending underwater demise. Immediately, even though I hadn’t moved, it slammed me again and in a split second I was halfway out of the water, my arms now above a hole in the ice but now I was being choked because whatever was yanking on me, not slamming into my head as I first thought, was doing so by pulling on the hood of my heavy winter parka. Tug, choke, tug, choke. I finally got a snow booted foot above the ice and hefted myself out of the river with the help of the tug…tug…tug…
“I finally got a snow booted foot above the ice and hefted myself out of the river with the help of the tug…tug…tug…”
Phoenix had followed me, watching me from above the ice and when he saw the opportunity, he seized it. I would have died, washed up eventually, days later, possibly many 10’s of miles away, causing my family heartache and pain that only a family suffering the loss of a child could know. All of that dreadful change and anguish averted, quashed by the love and protective instinct of a 65 pound lab of questionable lineage. I understood, at the ripe old age of 8, that this dog would have done ANYTHING including dying, to get me out of that water. So yes, I have my reasons for loving dogs.
Now, so many years later, sitting at my desk writing this, I still miss that dog deeply. Not just because he saved my life way back when but because he was a good dog. A dog that on more than one occasion risked his life to chase away a bear or two from the home and the people in it that he loved selflessly. Yes, I still miss ol’ Phoenix.