Like a lot of people, I've always dreamed of ripping off my outer clothes and diving into a dangerous body of water for a reason other than my own amusement.
Silver screen Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller may have planted that vision in me when I was a kid, later fortified by TV's Lloyd Bridges ("Sea Hunt") and Brian Kelly ("Flipper"). It seems like a necessary rite of passage for the action man or action woman, something more possible than killing an alligator with a knife but more meaningful than learning how to make s'mores in a campfire.
This dream became reality recently when my dog, Cassius, hurled his portly self into the rapid Gila River after a downed dove.
No sooner had he landed in the muddy water than he began to disappear downriver, a passenger on a current far faster than I had suspected.
He ignored my commands to return to shore, but there was no shore anyway, just 10-foot mud banks perpendicular to the rushing river. Cassius--beloved gift from my beloved wife--was clearly imperiled.
Here was my moment. Bootless and shirtless, I dived into the water with all the drama I could muster, turning my face sideways just before landing so as not to knock out on some unseen object the front teeth that had cost my parents thousands of bucks to un-buck when I was a child. The water was cold.
Head up, I spotted the dog, diminishing in the middle distance like a piece of driftwood, and stroked toward him. One benefit of swimming with the current is that you go really fast, regardless of where that current might be leading you. I could feel the cold of the water, hear the hissing passage of my body on its eerily rapid course, feel the heavy tug of my boot socks, which I had neglected to remove after the boots. I felt swept up in a power greater than myself, which of course, I was. I felt as willful and self-determining as a log.
I caught up with Cassius in less than a minute. As I neared him he was still paddling upstream toward me, snorting loudly, and still going backward. I grabbed his collar. I looked into his face, his one-eyed expression a uniquely canine combination of terror and determination. "OK, Cash--good boy," I said, wondering just what he'd done that was really so good.
The next moment, it was obvious. The bird was still in his mouth, lost in his Churchillian jowls, but there nonetheless, in keeping with the training that had begun when he was just 8 weeks old. There was a gleam of triumph in his eye.
"Good, good boy," I said, extracting the soaked bird and jamming it into the pocket of my shorts. Like bird dogs, bird hunters are loath to lose game under any circumstance. This accomplished, I began to sidestroke toward shore, weighty Cassius in tow like a freighter. We were still heading downriver, fast.
When we finally got to the bank, I used one hand to moor our flotilla to a weed. We panted in unison. "You know what come means?" I muttered.
It took 30 minutes to slog our way along the mud wall, upstream, going from weed to weed. The mud was so sticky and fine it sucked off my socks. Twice we lost our tenuous purchase with land and were dragged back 20 feet by the current.
Finally we reached a small beach, onto which I pushed Cassius, then climbed out behind him. We crawled up a short mud wall and onto dry land, a wholly graceless amphibious landing.
For a while I stood on terra firma, breathing hard, resolving for the nth time to quit smoking, realizing I had failed to take out my wallet, which was now embedded in the muddy trench of my pocket. Cassius found some shade under a greasewood tree, and a mound of dry silt, in which he rolled himself happily. He was soon caked with a pale layer. He looked like a baker. I peered out at the Gila, registering forever, I hope, the look of a river too fast to mess with.
Desert hours in September are abnormally long. They bore on, hotter and hotter. That afternoon, Cassius, retrieving his 20th bird, became spastic with heat prostration--legs collapsing like temple pillars, body heaving helplessly in the sand--and I had to carry him through 100 yards of desert to an irrigation pond into which he dropped with a titanic splash. A moment later he was circling the pond like a circus seal, lapping up gallons of water, blissful again.
That evening, fully recovered, he managed to run across a dirt road directly in front of the only car moving in roughly 1,000 square miles of desert. It missed him by a foot. He emerged from the dust cloud, tongue lolling, a kind of jauntiness to his stride.
I sat down with him for a while and probed his eye for a sign of some deep psychological disorder--a simple death wish would do--but saw nothing but the beautiful golden eye of a content and tired dog.
Later that evening, with the dog passed out on the motel room carpet in front of the air conditioner, I began to view him as a kind of Peter Sellers of bird dogs--the happy idiot who blazes a trail of destruction with a grin on his face, oblivious to consequence. My hunting buddies had nicknamed Cassius "Catastrophe."
A little excitement and good company puts a soul back in order. Coming home to Orange County two days later, I walked into the house where my wife Cat and I had lived for three years before her passing--three years of life and love, anguish and desperation, hope and serendipity. Three years during which I also hunted with Cassius, her gift to me, accident-prone joker that he is.
In bed that night I reviewed the last three days, the last five years, whatever I could manage on an average IQ and seven hours of driving. The house is full of reminders of Cat, some of them pure memories and others--such as the dog barking outside with extreme volume at mysteries in the darkness--tangible, audible, visible.
I know she will visit me in dreams. I know I will still hear Cassius barking out there, years after he leaves, too. I imagined a short prayer of thanks for a safe hunt, a clean bed, and for all the precious souls who have touched me and will touch me, human and otherwise, arriving, present and departed.