When I say my in-laws live a few towns away, I'm not talking about an hour's drive through the suburbs. Because we reside in Alaska, a visit to Grandma's house involves a half-day's journey over 370 miles and a trek across the marsh, up the mountain, into the pass, over the river, and through the woods. Service stations are few and far between—even if we manage to make it to a gas station, the restrooms aren't always working. And so it was on a sunny weekend in the summer of 2002.
My husband had stopped at an old Chevron to fill up his pickup and let our 4-year-old daughter take a bathroom break, but the restroom was out of order. Being the good Alaskan dad that he is, my husband pointed our toddler toward the bushes along a hurricane fence that ran across an empty field sitting next to the cracked asphalt of the service stations's parking area. The dirt lot was undeveloped, full of rocks and sticks, with not even a tree to hide behind. Being the good Alaskan kid that she is, our daughter did not hesitate to run out there to take care of business.
As my husband set about fueling his truck, a strange feeling overcame him. You may know that feeling. It's the tap tap tap of God's finger on your shoulder, as an inner voice warns, "Listen up. Danger's on its way." My husband glanced over to where his little girl was wrestling with her waistband, intent on the logistics of going potty in the wild. He looked to his right across the field, where he saw two Rottweilers headed straight for her.
Alaskans witness marvelous moments in nature. A bald eagle will snatch a fish right out of the water and keep on flying. Two rams can hit each other with such force the air booms with the sound of their horns crashing together. You learn a thing or two about hunting and prey, watching through high-powered binoculars as a wolf takes down a moose calf. I'm not exaggerating when I say that on that summer day, racing across that dirt field, those dogs were intent on one purpose. Running as fast as they could, ears laid back, teeth bared, their eyes were trained on their target. There was no tail wagging, no barking, no uncertainty. Those dogs were going to attack a baby girl.
Before his brain could even process what was happening, my husband's instincts took over. His hand dropped the fuel hose, and as the nozzle hit the ground, he was already taking off. His body lunged forward in the sprint of his life. Everything around him was crystal clear: his daughter now standing motionless, frozen in terror by the sight of the advancing animals . . . the owner of the dogs, half a mile away, shouting thinly for his pets to come back . . . and the dogs galloping low to the ground in fluid, determined motion. My husband knew the very life of his child depended on him reaching her before the canines.
His feet hit the soft earth of the field, and without slowing, my husband bent forward. He swung his arm down and scooped up a stick, using only his peripheral vision, while the main focus of his eyes never wavered from the dogs closing in on his unmoving little girl. History shifted, and the purpose for the many years he'd spent training on the basketball court and running cross-country changed in a split second. The speed and strength he had developed as an athlete was no longer about leading his team, or winning races, or placing in the Seaside Marathon—his ability to run and to run fast was meant solely for this match against a pair of attack dogs. As he charged straight into the path of the oncoming killers, he lifted his arm and let out a primeval roar fueled by testosterone, rage, and certainty that death blows would follow. Rottweilers, meet Alpha Male.
The dogs stopped. Stared. Sized the human up. An eternity filled those few seconds of time, a mere moment, but one that ticked past in slow motion. Then the Rotts pivoted. I wish I could say they yelped and ran away as fast as they could, with their tails literally tucked between their legs, but truth be told, they loped nonchalantly back toward their owner on the far side of the field, refusing to act cowed or intimidated. Game over. No big deal to them. My husband turned to gather up his tiny child, she crying and his hands shaking now that the threat had been removed.
If you ask my daughter today, she will tell you that she mostly recalls the dust billowing up behind the dogs as they raced toward her. Although she couldn't articulate it at the time, she now can admit to feeling completely vulnerable standing there in her underwear, too petrified to bend her knees and pull her pants up, staring at the monsters bearing down on her. She didn't understand the concept of death, yet her young mind realized with horror that those dogs meant to eat her.
She doesn't remember her dad being there at all, until he appeared out of nowhere to pick her up and hold her close. My daughter knew then that she'd be okay.