Damn, I was beginning to wonder why I did this. Search and Rescue is a long job with a low success rate for the individual teams. You always hope you will be the one that makes the find and that you bring them out. The worst is when you are too late.
The ringing of the phone had brought me out of a deep sleep. From what the commander said this was going to be a high profile search. A plane went down in the mountains west of here. They had an approximate area, and the search planes should have an exact location shortly after sunrise. We would be sent in to check for survivors. This was the routine that we played out a couple times a year. What made this one special was that some bigwig and his party had been on this plane. That meant the media would be at the command post almost as fast as we could get there.
Another thing that could become a problem was the weather. A cold front was due to pass through within 72 hours bringing high winds and snow. If we couldn't get there quickly, any survivors of the crash would probably die of exposure.
Before I could get dried off from my shower, my partner was sitting in the bedroom waiting for me. Thor sat watching me dress in my warmest clothes, anticipating my next move before I could make it. He led the way down the stairs to the closet where I kept my pack and his harness. Thor then knew that we were indeed going to work. His excitement started to affect me and I became more anxious to get started.
The van pulled up and I piled our gear into the back. Simon Walters, the base commander lived close enough that we would often ride together. With him driving the hundred or so miles to the command site, I could relax a bit and think about what we would soon be up against. However for some reason, staring into the darkness that enveloped us, my mind wandered back. Back to a time I would give anything to not think about again.
I had joined Search and Rescue as an extension of my job as an EMT. I was partnered with a Sable German Shepherd named Heidi that had already been trained. Our first efforts were comical because I had no idea what I doing. The instructor finally explained that I had to learn to watch and listen to the dog. We did much better after that, but it wasn't until I learned to trust her completely that we really meshed as a team. I had to earn her trust as well.
Things changed the day I sat on the ground in frustration at another missed decoy. I was squatted down holding my head in my hands, ready to throw the towel in. Suddenly there was this big black muzzle resting in the bend of my elbow. I looked over and stared into those dark brown eyes. She was giving me a look that I learned was her complete trust and love of me. I gave her a scratch behind the ears and told myself that we could do this. And we did.
I was living in California at the time and most of the work was finding lost children in the parks and hills. We were a great team, winning awards from competitions and racking up a good record of rescues.
But mostly we bonded as a team and as best friends. This was a good thing since my wife had decided that she needed to find herself with a banker that made about five times as much as I did. I came home one evening to find most of the house cleaned out and a note that explained that I would be getting the papers from her lawyer in the mail. All the emotions that I had welled up within me and I went into every room alternating between rage and complete desperation. Heidi followed me, not understanding except that I was very upset. I spent the first night in a stupor, staring at the little TV my ex had left and drinking whiskey until I passed out.
I spent the first few weeks in a deep depression, just going through the motions of surviving. Heidi got into the habit of sitting beside me and laying her huge head in my lap. Her big brown eyes would look into mine trying to tell me it would be alright. That was the look of absolute love and devotion.
I was so down on relationships that I spent most of my time with Heidi in practice and advanced training. She passed the explosives test with flying colors, and won several awards.
We came into our own when an earthquake in the northern part of the state. It was a strong one and caused extensive damage. Heidi and I were assigned to check for survivors in the rubble. We went into the search area and went to work. I could see her orange vest as she went around piles of rubble, her nose sniffing for any signs that humans were buried.
We were about to move on to another area when Heidi barked and then sat in front of a pile that just hours before had been a four-plex. This was her signal that she had made a find. We moved to the side and signaled for a crew with the proper equipment take over. They started moving the rubble and within a short time the man in the hole shouted out that they had found a young man trapped but still alive.
I pulled Heidi's favorite toy out and gave it to her for her reward. He had been our third find that day and I was proud of her. Heidi even made the national evening news. The crews caught footage of her as she moved around a pile of rubble, her nose sniffing the cracks and under the concrete for any scent that would mean a person was alive in the pile of bricks and wood that once had been a house. Of course, she could have cared less about the cameras and lights. She knew her job and she would do it without any distractions.
It was late in the day when were moving through piles of debris near what had been a strip mall. There was an aftershock that caused the ground to move a bit. I was told later that the movement caused a propane tank that was hidden under the rubble to explode. All that I heard was a deafening explosion and I felt myself thrown about 20 feet into what once was the parking lot. My ribs hurt like hell and there was blood running down the side of my face. I knew Heidi had been in front of me and I frantically searched for her.
When I spotted her body lying on the ground about 10 feet from me, I could see the piece of twisted metal that seemed to have magically grown out of her rib cage. I staggered over to her calling her name. When I knelt down next to her, she raised her head up and gave me a look that was filled with pain. I knew that there was no hope, she had already lost a lot of blood and what was still trailing out was the bright red of oxygenated blood. The piece of steel had gone through her lungs. I picked up her head and cradled it in my lap. She gave a couple of feeble wags of her tail and gave my hand a lick. That had always been her signal that she was there for me and that she loved me. I stroked her muzzle and the side of her face as I watched the once brilliant brown eyes lost their luster, and her body gave a final gasp of life. There had been nothing I could do to save my best friend, but at least she felt me there as she passed.
How long I sat there completely despondent trying to shield her lifeless body from the light rain that had started I still don't know. We were found by fire rescue when the dusk of the day had started to envelop us. They tried to get me to move, but I simply could not just leave Heidi lying there. The search supervisor finally assured me that she would be taken care of, and they placed me on a gurney for the ride to the crowded emergency room.
Heidi's ashes were put to rest with honor. She was a hero of the fire department in our small town ever since she had found one of their own after he had broken his leg in a fall. They gave her full honors in a memorial that did her service proud. I decided that I could no longer handle the emotional hurt and decided to retire from Search and Rescue. Never again would I have another dog.
Three years passed and I had started a new life. I had moved to the mountain town of Telluride, joined the fire department as one of 3 EMTs, and even started a social life. I definitely did not want to settle down, but the snow bunnies were always ready for a good time, even if it was just dinner or drinks. Something more happened often enough to keep me satisfied.
Then came the day that the local group found out that I had been in Search and Rescue. I was talking to another of the EMTs about a couple of rescues that had turned out really well. We continued to talk about how the mountain passes would be different to search from what I was familiar with where I had come from. Something must have clicked when he stared at my nameplate and grinned.
"Tim Rivers. You had a dog that won the western regional championships two years in a row. That was you, wasn't it?"
I reluctantly admitted that I was. And before I could say I didn't want to talk about that, Jimmy was waving over a small group of people that had been standing near the pool tables.
As the 5 men and 3 women approached, Jimmy too loudly stated, "Simon, you remember when you got your ass royally kicked in the regionals 4 years ago?"
"Of course I remember, you won't ever let me forget it will ya?" said a man about my height with black hair and a face that I vaguely remembered. "Ham and I were just outclassed."
Jimmy, being shorter, had to reach up to clasp the man on the shoulder. "I want you to meet the man who showed you how it was done." With that he indicated me with a slightly drunken sweep of his arm.
I was very embarrassed as I extended my hand. Simon had a huge grin as he grabbed my hand and shook it with vigor. "I have to admit that you did deserve that trophy. I never have seen a team work as well together. I was looking forward to the rematch the next year. I was surprised when you weren't there."
.... There is more of this story ...