We took him in, so, yes, I used to have a dog.
An insatiably curious mongrel — you know, the shaggy kind that smells real bad when almost always wet — lived with us. We six, all of us recent college grads, lived in a small house in a small, wet city in Alaska. We called him Ginger, a girl’s name. He didn’t seem to mind.
Ginger taught us lots of things, things like what porcupine quills do to a dog’s snout and how vets remove them. Some days, I would jog and Ginger would hunt well into the woods. Even porcupines. He was nosey about everything the forested southeast Alaska could provide, including foraging for rodents, black bears, and drunken teenagers.
One cool day, droplets of water hanging on pine needles outside the window, Ginger let me know it was time to jog. We left town and trotted deep into the forest, following the gravel road toward the shuttered entrance to a gold mine. Unusual, Ginger stayed to the road.
Boughs draping low over the road, the forest liked to listen to itself, to proud firs stretching into the sky, to eagles circling overhead, to cold rivers rushing between granite rises.
I liked that old gold mine. Rusted steel tracks led beneath the boarded mouth dark and quiet into history. Into the starched boards lovers had carved promises, sealed with names and dates.
Returning home that particular day, Ginger made sure our jog would be different.
Well ahead of me, to a ledge looking steep down to the river, Ginger darted and barked — nonstop. Well beyond him and near a bend in the road, two teenagers escaped out of our view, glancing back but once. Ginger ignored them, yapping downhill at something I surely would have missed.
Thirty rocky feet down from Ginger, halfway between the road and the riverbed and contorted around the base of a sapling, lay a shirtless Tlingit boy. The tree must have stopped his body’s hurtling to the speedy river, far below. Dead or alive, I didn’t know, but Ginger did. Ginger knew the boy must be retrieved. Ginger knew that I must do it, and he wouldn’t stop barking until I made my way down to the solitary tree.
Later, the boy bluish on the road, Ginger licked his face and fingers, trying to resuscitate. But it was the savvy of the only pickup truck I ever saw on that lonely mine road — its driver, really — that saved that unconscious boy. After ordering me to wrap him and the boy in the foil blanket that just happened to be in the back of the truck, Ginger and I watched as the driver hugged and massaged the boy’s temperature up from death. The hospital later confirmed the driver had saved the boy’s life.
Sometimes, as much as we may hate ourselves for it, we become the boy. Drunk in our own lives, wrapped around a tree that seems like our last chance. Other times, we become the unwitting jogger who arrives, uncertain what to do. Maybe still, sometimes we become the pickup driver, ready with know-how and determination.
But, maybe, just maybe, what we all need to be is Ginger. Smelly, crazy ignorant to the dangers of porcupines, Ginger had the gift of instinct. Ginger knew beauty, he knew fun, he knew life.
Ginger could teach public education a thing or two.