About six years ago, I lived in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. This is the last north side lakefront neighborhood before you get to Evanston, the first “North Shore” suburb, home to Northwestern University and lots more pricey. The Rogers Park neighborhood had, just a few years before, actually been a little rough – and, among most white Chicagoland residents, still had that reputation.
Most of Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline is park, so Rogers Park is really the only neighborhood where you can live right on the lake, as I did. Those of us who had moved in over the last few years carefully guarded the secret that this neighborhood was making a big comeback and was really a pretty safe, fun, diverse community. If our secret got too widely known, none of us could have afforded to rent our lakefront apartments.
There actually is about a half-mile of park beachfront sandwiched in there. Kind of hidden away as this little park is, it had some of its own norms. Different from other Chicago beaches, no one ever really enforced the “Dogs on leash only” ordinance, except for high summer, when the beach got (relatively) crowded – and even then not before nine a.m., when the lifeguards came on duty.
There was a little posse of us who ran our dogs on that beach in the morning year-round. Our dogs mostly all knew each other and had a fine old time. (They were all medium-to-large sized critters – lap doggies got walked at different times and places.) We dog owners mostly only knew each other by our dog’s names. (I was “Bobbie’s dad”, after my adorable border collie pup. Another woman was “Midnight’s mom”, after her lovable if not totally smart black lab.)
Those dogs not only loved running on the beach, but most were very enthused about swimming out into the lake to fetch their tennis balls and various doggie toys. Most of them would do this all winter, except when the lake started to freeze over, which happened only during especially cold winters.
But this had been an extraordinarily cold winter. Before the surface of the lake froze solid, it was covered with free-moving ice floes of various shapes and sizes. Then we got an awesome snowstorm, with monster winds off the lake – driving all those ice floes up onto the shore, creating 10-foot hills of snow and ice right at the shoreline. These hills dropped precipitously into the lake, which now had frozen over right near the shore, with more ice floes still bobbing around further out.
This flat layer of ice near the shore was new and clearly fragile – so walking on top of these hills was definitely risky. But most of us people could not resist it, because it was so amazing – and now was the only way to actually see the lake. And our dogs, always up for an adventure (not so much for the views, I don’t imagine), naturally followed us up.
Then one morning, the worst – which we should have known would eventually happen – finally did. Actually the second-worst. Worse still would have been for one of us humans to lose our footing, slide down the lake side of that hill, break through the ice and – because of the sheer face of that side of the ice hill – have no way to get back up. This would have been worse still because none of us could swim like those dogs, much less tolerate the freezing water. And worse because, much as we all loved our dogs, just because…
None of us actually knew just when it happened. While most of us were capable of spoiling our dogs, we really did enjoy visiting with each other – regardless of whether we knew each other’s names. And our dogs, running around and playing with each other, were pretty self-sufficient. We sure didn’t dote on them as you might a child at a playground.
But at some point, Petey’s mom asked if any of us had seen him recently. Petey was a big, floppy, older mutt (maybe some Lab and who knew what else) that got along with everybody – canine or human. He truly was a sweetie. But none of us had seen him for a while. We looked up and down the ice hill we were walking on, then over into the park, then – really pretty reluctantly – out in the lake. It took us a while to spot him, but there he was – maybe 50 yards from shore, his front paws up on an ice floe. As we aimed our attention out there, we could hear him making pitiful little moans or cries. He looked like he was already half-frozen.
His mom and others of us started calling to him, hoping he would swim towards shore. If he did make it there, we really did not know how we were going to get him up out of the water without putting ourselves at risk.
Clay was a really nice, strong young guy who, with his girlfriend, had two dogs in our little pack. He and I went up and back along the top of that ice hill, looking for a place where we could pull Petey out, if he did make it back to shore. The best we could come up with was one spot where there were pretty good footholds for going down to the water’s edge, then a flat ice ledge extending maybe eight feet into the lake. We conferred and were in total agreement that this ice ledge looked way too precarious. If you didn’t slide into the lake, you would almost certainly break through it into the water – and then how was anybody going to pull you out?
This all seemed pretty moot, because Petey was showing no signs of swimming towards land. He was almost immobile, hanging on to that ice floe. He would make an occasional pitiful and totally hopeless attempt to pull himself up. It was both way too slick and, the harder he leaned on it, the more his edge dipped down into the water, threatening to slide him off altogether. And he continued to make those intermittent, way-too-mournful moans. None of us said it, but I think all of us had the thought that we would end up standing there until he froze and drowned – think Leonard DiCaprio in that awful near-last scene of “Titanic”.
Then, out of nowhere, a miraculous thing happened. Petey let go of the ice floe and started to swim towards shore. He was not the most physically vital dog to begin with, and he was obviously weakened from floating in that water for what we guessed was probably over a half-hour. But swim he did, looking part frantic and part very determined.
But there was still the issue of how to pull him out. Clay and I retraced our steps up and down the shore, hoping there might be some workable spot we had missed. But no, the only feasible spot was the one we had already agreed was too dangerous. We had each announced out loud that we would not risk our own lives on that fragile-looking ice shelf.
Then, when Petey was almost to shore, Clay broke ranks – he laboriously searched for footholds as he worked his way down to that ice shelf. I was standing right there – I couldn’t believe what I was seeing him do. And, uttering (I’m sure – I really don’t remember) a litany of “Shit!”s and an occasional “Fuck!” (or maybe the other way around), I went down after him.
When he got to the bottom, Clay started calling to Petey and stretched himself out full- length to the water’s edge. I stayed at the closer edge (still only a couple of inches of ice from the frigid water) and grabbed hold of his legs. I remember sliding his socks down so I could get a firmer grip on his ankles. And Petey – did he know this was his best chance or just respond to the urgency of Clay’s voice? – ignored all the other people on the ice hill screaming to him and swam towards Clay.
It was a good thing Clay and I had not reversed roles. Number one, I don’t think I would have done what he did – I just went down there because I couldn’t let him do this alone. In hindsight, my weight as I came down on that ledge may have increased the likelihood of us both crashing through. But my thoughts were not particularly strategic or analytic – I just wasn’t letting him go down on that ice alone. But what made it even more important that we were each playing the role we did, was that no way in hell could I – stretched out as Clay was – have pulled that big dog out of the water. Young and strong as Clay was, I still don’t know how he did it. He sure had no leverage from that position.
But, when Petey reached him, Clay grabbed him under the front legs and, with one massive pull – and I picture Clay making a karate kind of bellow, though again I really don’t remember – Petey came up out of the water. Miraculously, that thin, flat layer of ice held. Then I pulled them both back towards the ice hill. With me pushing Clay from behind, he was able to climb up with Petey in his arms.
Well, let me tell you, it was pure bedlam on that beach. You have never seen a more jubilant bunch. Petey’s mom and Clay carried that big, pitiful, half-frozen dog back to her apartment, where she put him in the tub and gradually raised the temperature of the water. I don’t think she actually knew any better than any of the rest of us what really was the right first aid at that point – she just followed her instincts.
Clay and I got our well-deserved 15 minutes of fame. By the next morning, all the members of our posse who had not been there knew the story. I made it completely clear that my heroism was very reluctant. I had always liked Clay a lot and this adventure had forged a very tight bond between us, but I made quite the point that I had only risked my life for a dog because “this crazy son of a bitch.…” I think that everyone could hear the love under my feigned anger.
But this was not the end of the story. For me, the juiciest part of the story came out that next morning.
Christina, maybe 30ish, was, among us who did not know her name, just Cleo’s mom. Cleo was the sweetest pitbull you could ever want to meet – she totally blew away any stereotypes I had had about pitbulls. And most of us knew that Christina was a hair stylist, at a cool salon a couple miles away on Western Avenue – we all drove by it regularly. She did strike me, at least, as just maybe a little spacey – but cute, big-hearted and generally adorable.
That morning after the rescue, she had an amazing story to tell. “When we were just watching Petey freeze to death out there, I finally just couldn’t deal with it anymore. I really kind of freaked. I took Cleo home, got out of my coat and sat in front of my meditation altar. For a few minutes, I just cried and shook with cold and fear. Then I started to meditate. I actually called on all my angels and spirit guides, and all those attached to Petey and his mom, to get Petey to swim towards shore. And then this real peace settled over me – I knew it had worked. I went back out to the beach and it was all over but the shouting. Petey had been saved – just as I knew for certain, all the way walking out there, that he had been.”
OK, call us a bunch of new-age junkies, aging hippies, stoned-out animal freaks – whatever. But it did sound like Petey had – miraculously, unexpectedly, really quite out of the blue – started to swim like hell for shore, pretty much at the exact time that Christina was calling out the mystical National Guard.
For me, the story works just as well – is just as exciting – if I balk at the angels/spirit guide stuff and simply hypothesize that Christina, herself, sent the powerful psychic command that got Petey swimming. But at that moment, listening to Christina’s story, I don’t think there was a one of us who doubted for a minute that it was Christina’s intervention that had gotten Petey to stop helplessly dying and to take action.
Christina sent her personal, spiritual cavalry out to get Petey – and they, by God, did it.