A very sincere thank you Gino. I have printed your latest and will mail it to my Dad tomorrow. He usually takes it to the nursing home where my Mom resides, and reads it to her. They are living about 40 miles up the Fraser River Valley from Vancouver, in a town called Langley. My Dad is now 93, and my Mom is 88. They very much enjoy your stories. At the risk of being called a nag - keep writing my friend! Your audience is larger than you think. Unquote”
Once in a while, one needs to know that he’s on the right track and I guess I’m no different than anybody else. The other day, I was contacted by an individual who was asking permission to publish my “dog escapades” and make them available to the members of their association. I didn’t see any problems with this request but as I mentioned to him, this stuff is not fiction and I don’t really know how it’s going to end. Oh sure, we’ve got a destination as to where we would like it to go but the reality of it all is that the CAN-AM Sled Dog Races is the “Big League” and for the “Big Boys. It’s full of serious “win at all cost” mushers and I’m not too sure if the dogs and I fit in that category. Don’t get me wrong. The dogs are in fantastic shape and will do whatever I ask of them. However, the great distances traveled, over 600 miles so far this season, are taking a toll on the team and it’s starting to show. Almost two weeks ago, while putting them through their paces, I could tell that the team was not as enthusiastic as usual. But what was most noticeable was that the “Kid” was not giving his normal 150%. Although he was trying, he had this lameness in his stride that suggested he was hurting. So, halfway through the run, I planted anchor and attended to my “wheel dog”. “What’s up there, Big Guy?” I asked him, looking at him do his version of snow angels. “Are you giving up on me, Buddy?” Just lying there, rolling around on his back, he simply stopped and gazed up at me. Thinking about it for a few seconds, he then reached into the depth of his left front paw with his teeth and chewed at it for a while. When he managed to pull it, he spit it out. “OK,” I said, seeing this blood filled ice packed snowball roll in my general direction, “I get the picture.” “Yeah, and they say that we’re the smart ones.” I thought, deciding that this was as good of a time to check some feet. On that note, I got on my “fours” and inspected all the paws of the entire crew. To my surprise but something I should have seen coming, not one dog was not sporting an injury. All of them, all six members of the “A Team” had some sort of a laceration on a foot and when it came to my “John Deere Tractor”, well what can I say, the poor animal had tears at the bottom of all four pads. “No wonder, you can’t run “Kid”, your feet are a mess.” Grabbing that loveable “YOGI the bear” head and scratching him behind the ears, I added, “When we get back today, I guarantee you guys that we’ll be addressing these issues as well as many others.”
That’ the frame of mind I was in after my “misadventure” that ended in that pink shed. It’s not that the experience had scared me but I had been literally slapped in the face and given quite the “wake-up” call. Coming back from that run that afternoon, I had come up with over 100 reasons as to why I should not race. Some of them really struck a “chord” with me and were helping me convince myself that I should remain a “recreational musher”. There was the “I’m too old for this shit. My arthritis can’t take it anymore.” Of course, another good one was, “Hey, I’m like the dogs, we don’t care if we race, we just enjoy being out there.” But the best one was, “Hey, maybe this mushing business is not what it’s cracked up to be. Why should I put myself through all this pain and agony for a bunch of mutts?”
So that particular evening, when I was tending to the dogs and applying some “Bag Balm” to the bottom of their feet, I had not decided to pack it in but let’s just say that there wasn’t too much wind in my sails. Standing there on top of the operating table, hooked to a chain hanging from the ceiling, the dogs weren’t too keen on the procedures. One by one, they were subjected to what they thought might be some sort of morbid form of torture. Tails between their legs, it was hard to convince them that this massage was going to be beneficial to them. But after talking to them and once they realized that this ointment felt good, they relaxed and let me work my magic. “Sox” with his saggy baggy eyes, just thought that this was great. Once all of his paws were done, he again extended his hind left leg and looked at me as to say, “Well, don’t stop now!” “Sorry Buds but you’re time is up.” I said, smiling at him and gently slapping him in the hind quarters. I hadn’t noticed this before but this two year old had developed quite the set of hard “quads” and just like the other “Boyz”, had become quite the hard core athlete. Yeah, I had pushed them hard and it had been heavy duty trail miles.
January 2009, in this neck of the woods had been extremely harsh. While they were bragging about record lows of – 38 degrees Celsius in Regina, Saskatchewan, we were being bombarded with Siberian weather standing still in the vicinity of around – 45 degrees Celsius and get this, even before the wind chill factor. All over the place, vehicles, except for my “Dog Buggy” of course, wouldn’t start. Closer to home, pipes in the cottages were freezing and busting like it was going out of style. Yeah, when you manage to get those aching legs going and head down those stairs to the bathroom for a piss and stare at the thermometer through the frosty window, sometimes you question your sanity. When you see the mercury way down there where the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales are at par (- 40), you can’t but wonder what those people are doing down south in the Caribbean’s. Oh the joys of mushing. And to think that I could easily afford a beautiful sun filled vacation for Fran and myself every winter with the money I spend on this sport. But instead of getting up and choosing what pair of floral design “Bermuda” shorts I’m going to wear, here I am putting up to six layers of clothes just to keep the chill out. Oh Baby, it’s a weird feeling when you head out that door at 0530 hrs in the morning and the entire region has no electricity. Walking around, with an arm full of firewood, in complete darkness with this thick ice crystal fog hanging in the air, you question how people manage to survive out here, let alone practice this craziness called dog sledding. Then you gaze towards the barn and a shiver runs down your spine. How did the dogs make out throughout the night? Sure they’re as tough as nails and all have good insulated dog houses but that little guy, Leonard, he’s only four (4) weeks old. How’s he making out? Add to that the fact that you’ve got to keep pushing six dogs past that 20 mile barrier, day in and day out and you know what? When I turned the lights out at the kennel after that particular massage therapy, I was on the verge of packing it in. “Only one problem. What am I supposed to do with the dogs?” A lot of things went through my mind but none of them made sense. These guys were family and somehow this whole mess would sort itself out and eventually come to some sort of a conclusion. Before taking drastic measures, I would take my favorite remedy and sleep on the matter for a few days. The walk towards the house that evening was quite the chore. I didn’t have one single bone in my body that didn’t hurt. Looking at that clear starlit sky, I took in a moment to gaze up and ask my old Indian friend and mentor, Leonard for some guidance. Checking for a sign like a falling star or something, I was soon disturbed back to reality by the harmonious howling coming from the barn. Although some neighbors were annoyed by this, I always got a kick out of their “symphony” and that night, it seemed to suit that exact instance as it was as if they were telling me not to give up. “You’re right Guys,” I said out loud as if they were standing in hearing distance, “we’ll get through this one way or the other but we’ll get through this together. That tonight, I guarantee you this.”
What I had not realized till the next morning was that the team and I had hit the infamous “wall”. Somewhere out there, in between the 500 and 600 hundred mile mark, all of us, one by one, had all been affected by the demanding training schedule. The dogs, well they didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about. They were just satisfied to continue to go out there and pull, not necessarily because they enjoyed it but rather because I asked them to. The type of loyalty these animals had shown me was quite remarkable and it was up to me to quit being a wimp and pull my “socks up”. The dogs were looking for leadership and I was the guy they looked up to, to provide it.
They say that a “rolling stone does not gather any moss” and that’s fine. However, I would consider myself more of a “snowball rolling down hill and picking up speed”. You see, because of that flattering “request to publish”, I had taken the time to read the numerous short stories written over the years and really review what these dogs meant to me. Some of the reading was funny, some of it was sad and a couple of them still remained unfinished business till this day. You see, when “Mosqua” and I started this mushing journey six years ago, we had somewhat of a clue of what we were getting into but remembering and doing it are two different things. In the sled dog world, six years can be an eternity and my faithful German Shepard could attest to that. Way back then, he had started as “Lead Dog”, to be then demoted to “team dog” and then “pack mule”. This winter, he could no more follow and this became quite evident when one day he ran out of juice down the trail and I had to put him in the basket of my sled and use him as “dead weight”. “Yeah Big Guy! Enjoy the ride. You’ve done your time. We’ll find you an easier job” He still hung around the team and bossed them but his duties were now reduced to watching the truck while we were out training. For some reason, he took it most seriously and I could leave the keys in the ignition, knowing that the “Dog Buggy” would still be there when we came back. As for the senior and still active members of the racing team, “Vixen” and the “Kid”, you could tell that the excitement of frolicking through wintry scenes had lost its luster but to them that didn’t matter. They were all business and still faithfully kept “soldering on” no matter what. Although three years ago, I had guided them down a path that had ended in tragedy and dead dogs, they had stuck it out through thick and thin and had never held that fact against me. Maybe this CAN-AM business was my way to redeem myself. As for the rest of the dogs, they had worked too frigging hard for me that there was no way that I could pack it in and this one month before the race. I owed them that much. Yes, it had been a rough go and three years in the making but they had become real contenders and a team that anybody would be proud of. They were ready for the challenge and it was time for the “boss” to wake up and smell the coffee. These dogs had put a real positive spin on my life and if it hadn’t been for them, I really question as to how or where I would have ended. Like the team, I had come a long way and now it was my turn to return the favor.
What has to be told is that after retiring from the military, I was left alone to fend for myself. Only one that has served for many years can relate to the abandonment one feels when he turns in his combat boots and “ID Card”. There’s this sense of emptiness that can’t be properly described. In my case, I had completely rebelled against the system. Completely “burnt out” from my service years, I walked around in a clinically depressed state for nearly a decade with a huge chip on my shoulder. Instead of following “doctor’s orders” and use the prescribed drugs, I had become a booze slugging, dope smoking buffoon that was not only overweight but had high blood pressure to boot. For entertainment, I’d get drunk to find courage and go downtown, literally looking for fights. This satisfied the “Beast’s hunger” for a few days and during those short periods of sobriety, hung over like a bastard, I would vouch to never do it again. Yeah right! By the weekend, I’d get thirsty again and we’d start all over again. When you see life through the bottom of a whiskey bottle, let’s just say that the future doesn’t look too bright and my nonsense really hit home one summer day.
I had been on a “three day drinking binge” when somebody told me that a band was paying tribute to my favorite group “Pink Floyd”. Still dressed in my sweaty lumberjack garbs, I went to this bar and waited in line to go in. Obviously, I didn’t fit in the picture amongst all those young well dressed “preppies” but I didn’t care. However, it seemed to bother one individual as after listening to him yell at somebody for a while, I turned around to see what the commotion was all about. “Yeah, you!” he boisterously told me, “The Hillbilly Bar is three streets down.” Not too sure if he was directing his comments towards my person, I looked all around me then back at him. “Me, are you talking to me?” I asked him getting quite annoyed by this young punk of a bully. “Yeah, you! I don’t think this is a place for senior citizens.” he continued trying to be funny for his friends. “Maybe you should just go and have a shower “old man”. You stink! “Me, old man and I stink” I thought. “Them’s are fighting words.” Excusing myself and making my way through the crowd, I finally reached this individual. He was going to try to defend his honor or maybe even try to defuse the situation but unfortunately he never got a chance to open his mouth. I drove my left fist right into his forehead with such force that it sent his head hurling against a brick wall. The impact was so tremendous that it was lights out and game over within two (2) seconds. The blood coming from his nose was a scary sight but when he unconsciously started sliding down the wall and the back of his head was also bleeding, I was sure that I had killed him. Not panicking, I told his friend that this guy might need some medical attention. “Now, if you’ll excuse me,” I said with a bit of sarcasm, “I believe I need a shower.”
Ten minutes later, there was a panic in Edmundston and the “town police” as well as the RCMP were on the lookout for this “beast of man” that was out on a rampage. It didn’t take long for me to have a set of “red cherries” on my tail. “OK,” I thought to myself while pulling over, “now you’ve done it.” Putting my hands on the steering wheel, so to show no signs of resistance, I was ready to go down for the count and accept the consequences of my actions. What the hell, how much time in prison would I get for “assault causing bodily harm” and “impaired driving”? Whatever… I was in enough trouble right now so would keep my mouth shut and do what I was told. When the constable approached and flashed his “mag light” through the driver’s window I noticed that he was a “Mountie”. That was a good thing as far as I was concerned as usually these guys are “cool heads”. But what I did not know was that this individual knew me from way back then in Lahr, Germany. He had worked for me and I had highly recommended him when he applied for the other “Federal Police Force.” I recall feeling sad about seeing him go but knew that he would serve as a fine example and be a good ambassador for the Military Police Branch. Now, here he was fifteen years later holding the destiny of his old “Sergeant” in his hands. “So Gino, where you going at this time of the night?” he asked, recognizing my pick-up from his social calls at my place.
“Hey Steve, (fictitious name)! I’m going straight home.” I said quickly not wanting him to smell the alcohol on my breath. “I’m going straight home.”
“We’re looking for some sort of “Mad Man” tonight. You wouldn’t know where we could find him would you? “A tired man maybe” I said relaxing a bit “but a Mad Man… Sorry, can’t help you there” “Anyway,” he says, “what would you think if I’d give you a ride home tonight. I think you’re too tired to drive.” “I think that would be greatly appreciated.” I sighed. After parking the truck in a nearby parking lot, I got in the cruiser and he drove me home. After thanking him and trying to make a quick get away from this embarrassing situation, I opened the door to make my exit. “Just a minute!” he interjected. “I hope you realize that I’m doing this because I had a lot of respect for this “Gino” character at one time and owed him one. But Mr Roussel, consider yourself warned, you won’t be so fucken lucky next time. Come on Gino, you’re better than this.” he concluded, smiling and putting his hand out, “You’ve got to crawl out of that hole.” That entire incident had a detrimental effect on me. But instead of seeking help, I just kept digging that hole deeper and deeper. The prospect of the future was so bleak that at one point, I went to the mountain with a 40 ouncer in one hand and my Winchester in the other. Sitting there at the bottom of that maple tree, drinking and trying to find the courage to pull the trigger, I didn’t simply because I had my two poodles, Flash and Spike with me and was worried that they would not be able to get home safely once the deed was done. Yeah, dogs were important in anybody’ life and if one was to give one a chance, one would realize that canines can fill a void and give a lot of us a positive reason to get up in the morning.
The other thing I had realized was that although I had started this journey basically by myself, I had now quite the support staff. Starting on the “Home Front”, there was Fran. Here was my work boot wearing “city slicker” with her sleeves rolled up, slicing and carving huge cow livers. She had taken on the chore of ensuring that the team was always getting the proper nutrition that they needed. She didn’t really have to fuss and cook “Liver Treats” but she did anyway. I guess that entrenched Ukrainian background made it that the “Family” would always eat well. Add to that preparing “Wish Soup” everyday, twice a day in the peak of the high mileage season and you know what, I was glad to have her in my corner. Let’s not forget, the dozens if not hundreds of “booties” she has sewn over the years. I guess when you consider just the fact that I might be too picky at times and that I’ve always managed to find something not right with them and you know what? I would have packed it in a long time ago and told that whiner, “Hey Buddy, if you’re not happy then make your own fucking booties”. But no, not her. She just takes it all in stride, sometimes swallows her words and keeps on supporting me. Then there’s my 73 year old mother. Totally against sled dogs initially, she has gotten used to having them dig her garden up and had become seriously interested in all aspects of the sport. She watches the “Iditarod” on the Discovery Channel and is amazed that this breast cancer survivor “DeeDee Jonstowe” has ran the race twenty-five (25) times. She loves questioning me when I’m around the dogs as to how they’re feeling and what their names are. I’ve even heard through the “grape vines” that she defended me and the dogs at bingo one night. From the description I received, I can tell where I get my temper from. Of course, there’s my sisters. At Christmas, it was discussed that they would buy me a parka. After some negotiation and ordering this thing from way up north in the North-West territories, my baby sister showed up with this beautiful Canada Goose Down filled parka. “Here,” she said, “you’ll have something warm out there next time you’re stuck in the woods.” She continued on and said, “I’ll be glad when all this mushing business is over.” “What do you mean?” I queried. “Well, I’m worried that something might happen to you.” she replied, holding back tears. “Don’t worry about me” was all I said, but actually what I wanted to say was “Wait till next year, I’m running the “60 miler”.
Then there’s those people that seem to appreciate the writings. I don’t have a clue as to how many are out there but once in a while someone will acknowledge my efforts of putting this stuff in print and I guess it gives me some sense of satisfaction, knowing that it wasn’t done in vain. I would like to particularly mention those two Canadian Servicemen that went through Ramstein Air Force Base during the Christmas period. An old nurse friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous wrote and informed me that she enjoyed reading my “dog stories” and had thought these two individuals with leg amputations might also be interested. As it turns out, apparently it lifted their spirit and have already decided that since we’re a “Canadian” team, they’re sure of the outcome. And to think that I’m complaining about my “aching legs”… And then there’s Lodger’s parents. Apparently, they’ve been following my dog capers since way back at the beginning. What Lodger doesn’t know is that all through that time, his parents Mr and Mrs “C” have been a real source of inspiration for me and are right up there amongst the reasons as to why I keep sharing these anecdotes with people. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for that.
So in a nutshell, after all is said and done, my “Canadian Snow Hounds” provide me with an outlet where an old soldier like myself can feel in touch with some needed sense of order and discipline. The bond that I have with my dog team sort of reminds me of another friendship I cherish, the one I had with my “Boyz” way back then in Bosnia. They were also “animals” but were the most loyal bunch of individuals I had ever met. As for sharing my “dog stories” with anyone that wants to take time to read them, well that’s also good. You see when I think about what I’m going to write, it keeps my mind busy. If my mind is busy then I stay away from negative thoughts. If I stay away from negative thoughts then I don’t dream about stuff like the “Medak Pocket” atrocities, thus circumventing the vicious cycle. So to answer Paul’s question, I’d have to say “Yes my friend, prescribed medication can be most beneficial to some of us afflicted with this PTSD syndrome. However, a few of us might just be too stubborn to accept this avenue as the “Cat’s Meow”. There will be thousands of soldiers coming out of Afghanistan suffering from Operational Stress disorder and if only one of these poor souls happens to come across this journal and really grasps the fundamental message, well I will consider this as my small token towards the “war effort”. Also as a bonus, it might just relieve some of that sense of helplessness and guilt that I’ve carrying around since that ill-fated “UN Tour”. Knowing that I might have convinced a fellow soldier that suicide should not be an option would be the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done in my life and my contribution to society.
After some deep soul searching, that’s what I had deducted that Sunday morning when Fran walked in the “Bunkhouse” and said “So, you going to talk the talk or walk the walk?” “Humm!” I reflected, “Them’s are fighting word.” I got up off the couch, put my parka on and marched to the barn. “Gentlemen,” I barked out the orders, “Mount up. We’ve got a mission to take care of.” And on that note, in that blistering cold, we were off to the races. But that my friends, is a totally different story altogether (tongue in cheek).
In the words of a much smarter man than myself, Maslow, in his theory of “Hierarchy of Needs” wrote “If motivation is driven by the existence of unsatisfied needs, then it is worthwhile for a person to understand which needs are the most important to him.” Somewhere after all is said and done, he concludes, “Self-Actualized persons have frequent occurrences of peak experiences, which are energized moments of profound happiness and harmony.” According to Maslow, only a small percentage of the populace reaches the level of self-actualization.
You know what, Folks? I might just be on the right track or should I say “Trail”.
Peace on Earth to one and all. And remember, collectively, we can make a difference.
P.S. Me and the “Boyz” were testing ourselves against the clock yesterday and came up with some interesting numbers. Safe to say that when we race in Fort-Kent, we won’t be coming in late for supper.” Wink, Wink, say no more, say no more. = -)