I have a brother, Tom Tollefson, six years younger but still no spring chicken even back in 2002 when this happened. He and three friends—one of whom, a reporter named Brett French, wrote a memorable report about this incident in the Billings (Montana) Gazette, from which I pulled details that I’d forgotten since I first heard the story.
Anyway, Tom and his friends were out on the Yellowstone River with their dogs—four friends, four dogs, walking along the banks of a little island in a channel of the Yellowstone River just south of Billings. A warm day, warm for Montana in January, at least, and you could see the current in the little patches of dark open water that lay here and there in the ice.
Tom’s dog, an Airedale he called Greta, was running with the other dogs up and down the banks, which are pretty steep, but suddenly quit the game and stepped out onto the ice for a closer look. Or sniff. Of what, nobody knows. As I remember her, more than other dogs Greta did not need reasons for things, which it seems to me is not far from the point of being a dog. It is why they are happier than people.
Then came a small noise—more like a fire cracking than breaking ice, and in any case not much of a noise considering what it meant. Still, the sound drew everybody’s attention and as Tom and his friends watched, the dog dropped through, then rose slightly, splashing for the edge, but the edge broke again under her weight and she came to a moment when there was nothing left to hold on to, and then where the splashing had been the open hole covered over and the surface was smooth again, and the dog was lost in the dark river beneath the ice.
His friends ran along the bank, calling. Tom, as his friend wrote, began to beat on the ice with rocks and a tree branch, but only a few yards downstream from the place the dog had gone in the ice was unbreakable, half a foot thick. Time crawled, and the only sound was my brother pounding on the ice. The reporter—Brett French—took Tom’s van to look for an ax. Tom gave up on the rocks and the tree branch and jumped on the ice while one of the other friends stood with a tree branch on the edge of the river, with the idea of pulling him out if somehow he happened to break through.
Brett French was gone a long time, 20 minutes. Tom had exhausted himself, and sat for a little while, catching his breath, then started in again.
Then Brett French came back with the axe. One of the friends was keeping track of time and by now the dog had been gone half an hour. Tom went back to the spot, this time with the ax. The reporter had also found a rope and some gloves and Tom stopped to tie the rope around his waist. Brett French held the other end, waiting to pull him out. It was one of those times when you would stop someone if you could, but you can’t. The friends had all given up on finding the animal alive, but there was still the matter of the body.
As Brett French wrote, they all knew by then that one way or the other Tom was not going home without the dog. Still, except for my brother out on the ice with the ax, the frantic part of the search was over. And still, the friends went up and down the river, calling the dog’s name, but it was more of a courtesy now than any real thought of saving the animal, and nobody knew how to tell Tom it was time to give up.
And now it was mostly waiting for things to get worse. It was that kind of day when you know the world isn’t through with you yet, but by now you don’t care. He worked in spurts, exhausted, sweating and breathing hard, and now, before he went back at the river with the ax—a double-bladed ax, by the way—he noticed an uneven edge 10 yards or so downstream and went there instead of to the place she’d fallen through.
And this time when he lifted the ax it was into his own face, splitting open the tip of his nose. We don’t really look much like each other, Tom and I, and after Tom split his nose we looked less like each other than before. Or maybe not. Depending, I guess, on what kind of day I’m having myself.
The ice was softer near the crack, and not many whacks later the ax broke through, leaving a hole about a foot across. My brother dropped to his hands and knees and stared. And fur was moving in the dark current. He told me a few days ago that it was the closest he had ever been to a miracle.
He said, “Greta?”
And reached into the hole he had made, blood dripping from his nose, and pulled her out by her cheeks, up over his body and onto the ice. Somehow in the dark and cold she had found a pocket of air. The friend who was keeping track said she had been under the ice 40 minutes. And considering that, maybe you see the advantage now of being a dog, of hanging to her air pocket in the dark, fighting the current and the cold and not needing a reason.
Tom does not remember taking the dog to the vet, who according to reporter French, looked her over and pronounced everything in fine condition.
She was quiet for a day or two, lying on the living room couch mostly, tired, getting warm. For a little while, she seemed what you might call thoughtful. Happily, she got over that pretty fast too, and resumed her career as a dog.
As mentioned, this was 2002 and what brings it to mind now is that the best dog I ever had died last week, a dog whose life was so braided into mine that sitting down to write without him in place under the table is too big a job, too complicated to even try.
I am not talking about writing now, I am talking about sitting down, which I realize is completely nuts, and then while I contemplate my mental health my brother comes into it, and I picture him out by himself on an ice shelf on the Yellowstone River, late January, jumping on the ice to break one more hole, through which he will presumably pass and join his Airedale in the river—in our family, we call this a plan—and thereby retrieve a dog that is surely gone for good. And with that picture in mind, I realize that I’m probably all right, and I say this with complete admiration: When it comes to crazy, I don’t know shit.