Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Beyond Balto

I just completed the The Cruelest Miles. The book details the great race across Alaska by dog and man for anti-toxin during the 1925 diphtheria outbreak. I'll spare you all of the new words I learned (like those of the native Athabaskan people) and other interesting details, because quite frankly, my focus is on the dogs and what happened afterwards.

More than likely, everyone has heard of Balto. He was the lead dog in the team that "crossed the finish line" to deliver the life saving serum to Nome residents. He has a statue in Central Park and even a movie named after him. But what about the others? The distance traveled from Nenana to Nome was 674 miles, and was completed by a relay of numerous sledding teams. While Balto and his owner, Gunnar Kassen, completed their 54.3 mile leg ending in Nome, Togo (another lead dog) and his owner Leonhard Seppala raced more than triple that distance along the way to save Alaska. Togo lead his team over 170 miles of frozen Alaskan terrain with little fanfare to follow. Why can't we celebrate the underdog? I mean, what's the saying, "There is no I in team"? Obviously from this experience, there was no Togo or Seppala in the word "team" either. Not until later.

Why am I blogging about this? Because the lack of shared fanfare for the numerous dog sled teams post serum race, troubles me. And what's worse is, this is still common place behavior in today's world to forget about the people who helped you along the way, and only focus on the those who punt the proverbial ball over the finish line. 

While after much dismay at the lack of shared recognition, it was decided that the two winning-est dog sled teams (Togo and Balto) would go on tour to celebrate post run notoriety. But eventually, the parades and tours diminished and Togo went back to racing, doing what a sled dog does best. But the all famed Balto did anything but lead a star's life. Balto and his team were sold to the highest bidders from the tour company who in turn, tied the dogs up for viewing as part of a circus side show. Years later, upon discovery of their abuse,  George Kimble, a businessman, worked to free them and turn them over to the then, Brookside Zoo. 

While the story The Cruelest Miles is about saving Alaska from a serious epidemic, I can't help but focus on the aftermath; the lack of team recognition and in it's simplest form the way a nation threw away it's hero, Balto. This is seemingly though, common place in America as this disposable treatment is mirrored in the way we treat our Veterans. We single out those who performed the "bravest" acts, but truly, isn't everyone who served brave? We celebrate  individual victories and honor individuals, forgetting about the others who helped, and more so died, along the way. And then, at our very worst, when the novelty is gone, we then forget to take care of those we praised when they need it most. Wake up America, today is Veteran's day. We should not need one day to remember to respect, honor and thank those who served, rather it should be an every day occurrence. We shouldn't have to rescue our Vets from the side show circuses of depression and lack of after care. The next time you see an elderly gentleman with a Veteran hat on, or visit with your grandpa, thank them in any way appropriate. With words, with a kind act. Whatever the moment garners. But just thank them and remember, they are Veterans 365 days a year, not just today.

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