On average, I run 2,800 miles a year, so in the forty-six years since I returned from the jungles of Vietnam, I’ve logged 129,000 miles. That’s more than five times around the Earth, and more than half the distance to the moon. I love running long-range. Going the distance is an Army Ranger tradition, and running whenever and wherever I choose, in good weather or bad, I’m free to think and dream and still live the brotherhood as part of the troop.
My running dogs are part of that brotherhood, and over the years, each of my furry companions has logged nearly 35,000 miles with me. They love the freedom as much as I do, and in the summer we cool off mid run with a refreshing swim in the Detroit River. All my dogs are rescued from the Detroit Animal Shelter, and they’re always guys. We’re buddies from Detroit with a common understanding of the street. When I’m with my dogs, we’re always sharing the moment or a good joke. And if I have a problem, we have group discussions. Of course, it’s me doing all the talking with them happily agreeing, but by the end of our run, my problem is solved. They’re the best all-around friends a guy could ask for. I’m never wrong, and the conversation is always about me.
I said all my dogs are from Detroit, but that’s not the case with Ranger. In the summer of 1985, the brown and white collie-mix puppy was callously dumped over the fence at the Wayne County Sewage Treatment Plant in Wyandotte, where my wife, Cathy, worked as a secretary. Part of her job was to call the animal warden to pick up these abandoned pets, but something about this little guy made that task impossible for her. So she brought him home.
I looked him over and said, “Let’s call him Ranger, and he can lead the way! The saying “Rangers lead the way!” was earned on Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944, when Americans from different units were pinned down under murderous machine-gun fire. General Norman “Dutch” Cota rallied the Fifth Battalion Rangers by bellowing, “God damn it, Rangers, lead the way!” The Rangers broke through the German fortifications, allowing First Infantry Division troops to storm ahead.
From the beginning, my new four-footed Ranger didn’t quite lead the way, but he was a solid follower. He and one other buddy, Skipper, were the only dogs I could ever run off the leash. He followed me for fourteen years, and I never had to worry about him bolting across the street after squirrels or other critters.
One winter day, Ranger did something I never expected of him—not because he didn’t follow along, but because he followed my command to the letter. We were finishing a ten-miler at the Church Road canal bridge, one of several bridges on our-eight-mile long, two-mile-wide island that is home to eleven thousand people.
The canal was completely frozen except for a narrow band underneath the bridge, where dozens of ducks had gathered along the edge of the ice. Hearing all their quacking, Ranger perked right up and made a command decision: this one time, he would lead the way. Down the embankment he ran, after the ducks.
He hadn’t crossed the road, so I urged him on, yelling, “Get ’em, Ranger!” I knew that the ducks would be in the water before he got close, and they were, but Ranger kept charging ahead. He reached the edge of the ice, and it broke through. The ducks, meanwhile, swam to the far side of the open water and climbed back up. Now Ranger was trapped. He tried climbing back onto the ice, but the more he struggled, the worse his situation got. The edge became wet and slippery from his paws, and the current started sucking him under the ice.
My loyal companion and buddy was going to die unless I acted fast. There was no time to think, but luckily, I really knew the canal because I had taught all three of my kids to swim right at this spot. I knew that the depth was eight feet, and the current two miles per hour—slow but still deadly in icy conditions. I also knew that the ice would collapse under my weight even sooner than it did with Ranger. And I knew the danger of hypothermia and the horrible pain of immersion in frigid water because I had tried it before during a rescue attempt as a cop, with two young men who crashed their car in the icy river. That rescue didn’t end well, and my partner and I nearly lost our lives. But because of that experience, I challenged myself over the years by swimming in cold water and mapping out in my mind how to low-crawl onto ice by swimming perpendicular to the current. Ranger was struggling to climb out with the current, onto the downstream ice, and was about to slip under it.
It was time to put my experience to the test and confront my recurring nightmare of another trip into frigid waters. I walked onto the canal, and when I felt the ice weaken, I stepped farther and fell through, making sure I faced the current so I wouldn’t get trapped beneath the ice. The pain was shocking, but I swam out to my nearly drowned companion, wrapped my arms around him, and lifted his exhausted body onto the thicker ice. He shook himself off as I swam back to safer ice and climbed out. I was nearly frozen but pleased that I had confronted my fear—this time with a happier outcome.
We ran the quarter mile home, his fur and my clothes freezing up and crackling with each step. I took a long, hot bath with my running clothes still on, and when I finally thawed out, Ranger gobbled down a bowl of warm oatmeal and then curled up with his buddy, Skipper, who was too old to run anymore. I’m sure they had a good laugh sharing that running tale.
The next day on our run, Ranger and I had a nice long talk about the pros and cons of chasing ducks, and when and where to walk on ice.