Saving Private Fido
One early morning not too long ago, I was walking along the concrete banks of Brush Creek, a channelized waterway that runs through the heart of Kansas City, when I saw something I had not seen before: a dog swimming in the creek.
I had, of course, seen dogs swim in lakes and ducks swim in the creek, so I did not give it much thought, but then it dawned on me that it was a whole lot easier to get in this concrete creek than to get out.
I knew this from experience. A few years earlier, I had been walking along the edge of the creek, as I often did, when I got lost in thought and stepped off into space. I immediately knew I was going in the water, but as in the cartoons, it took about a half hour to get there. On the way, I had time to contemplate the absurdity of what could happen.
I had just finished writing a book on the mysterious demise of TWA Flight 800. It was due out in a month. At least a dozen people had told me to "watch my back." What they should have told me was to "watch my step."
Now, here I was, about to drown in Brush Creek. A whole conspiracy industry could grow up around my literal liquidation. Who would ever believe I just fell in? I hit the water almost laughing.
The laughing stopped, however, when I realized I could not get out. This was late November. I was wearing sweats, now about as heavy as I was, and boots. The walkway was about a foot and a half above the water. I could not quite pull myself out or throw my foot up over the edge. The harder I tried, the wearier I got.
Few people in our overly prissy metropolis walk the creek even in the best of weather. In late November, no one does. But then -- mirabile dictu! -- a hefty, heaven-sent fellow came ambling down the walkway. "Hey, Mac," I said to my new guardian angel, "could you lend me a hand."
Again, as in the cartoons, he did a comic double take. My guess is that he had not seen too many swimmers in this semi-toxic waterway, especially in late November. He cheerfully obliged. Once on my feet, I pulled out a soggy business card and vowed to return the favor should he ever need it.
With this experience as backdrop, I could scarcely deny a doggy in distress. So I lay down on the concrete and extended my hand. Fido got the message. He began swimming frantically towards me and extended his paw. I tried to grab it but could not get anywhere near hold enough to pull this chunky, soggy dog out.
At this point, I took out my cell phone and called 911. Dog rescue not being its line of work, the dispatcher referred me to Animal Control. Animal Control, I soon learned, only controlled animals from Monday to Friday. This was a Saturday. I explained that, without AC's intervention, this dog would surely drown. I was told that the pup had better keep swimming until Monday.
If I ever needed reminding that the words "compassion" and "government" should never appear in the same sentence, this was it. Although individual employees may have good instincts, actual compassion is a job requirement in no government office I know of. If an employee's good heart survives union restraints and bureaucratic imperatives, it is a miracle worth celebrating. There were to be no miracles that Saturday at Animal Control.
Being the son and husband of cynophobes (look it up), I have never owned a dog. I do, however, have regular dreams about dogs. My dream dogs are invariably smart, mischievous, and surprisingly talkative, especially given that they are dogs. We have good relationships. A psychiatrist could write a book about them. I could not let Fido drown.
I lay back down on the concrete and extended my hand again. Fido swam over, now obviously fatigued and frightened. This time I reached behind his head for his chain collar and gave it a good yank. Fido panicked. He spun his head around and bit a goodly chunk out of my hand. My dream dogs never did that.
I called Animal Control back. I explained that if they let the dog drown, they would have to drain Brush Creek to find him. Otherwise, I would have to go for rabies shots. This would not make for good public relations. Grudgingly, they relented. They would send a man out.
While I waited, I walked over to the nearby Starbucks to grab a cup of coffee. By the time I came back, a small knot of people had gathered, discovered Fido now about 100 yards down the creek, and was attempting to rescue him. "Watch out," I yelled. "He will bite you." The warning came too late.
"Damn!" the fellow hollered. Fido had just bit him too. As I walked down to compare notes, the Animal Control guy called. He was lost. He wanted a street address. I explained we were down on the creek bed, under the Main Street Bridge. There was no street address. The whole context flummoxed him. He insisted that I stay on the line to guide him.
Now about a half dozen people had gathered. Fido was drowning before our eyes. It was pathetic. We could not let it happen. I said to my fellow bite victim. "It's either you or me. We've already been bitten." He agreed. "You stay on the phone," he said. "Let me take another shot."
Happily, Fido was spent beyond all fight. The fellow reached down and with one mighty heave on Fido's collar pulled him out, now as shaky and damp as a newborn colt. The little crowd applauded teary-eyed.
At this moment, a chubby, timid Animal Control guy finally showed up. He had a leash in his hand. That was it. He could no more have collared Fido when still frisky than he could have a stray hippopotamus.
In his classic work, Democracy in America, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville marveled nearly two centuries ago at the American gift for voluntary association. Wrote he:
In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.
As Tocqueville also observed, "There is only one country on the face of the earth where the citizens enjoy unlimited freedom of association for political purposes." That is us. The 2012 election may well determine whether it remains us.