Talking Shop: Time to be Togo

In 1925, diphtheria devastated Alaska, leading to a serum-run in sub-50-degree blizzards. The dog that ran lead can teach us a few lessons in today’s dire times

Talking Shop: Time to be Togo

“I want to work like a dog,

doing what I was born to

do with joy and purpose.

I want to play like a dog,

with total, jolly abandon.”

Oprah Winfrey

There are no sharp paws and claws in drawing parallels, but we have to dejectedly admit that there are many who today claim to be winners of marathons (or national projects), even when they have run only the last kilometre or two, yet taking the podium in so-called virtuoso victory. These persons are audacious enough to embrace the celebrations and even post and tweet their undeserved accolades. Sure, many are eventually exposed, these wannabe usurpers of success conceived of and achieved by others, but the damage has been done. Today, somehow, it is only the last kilometre or two that seemingly matter.

While on this last kilometre, let’s move on to an Alaskan dog called Togo, who was just like me, but a century back. He was full of stupid energy, a loud bark and made little sense. He messed up his man-father’s house throughout his childhood and adolescence, and then tried to make up for it through his endeavours—and he did this in style, but no one applauded him. Something about Togo; he was the lead dog of musher Leonhard Seppala and his sled team in the 1925 serum-run from Nome and back across central and northern Alaska. Despite covering massively greater distances than any other dog on the run over some of the most dangerous parts of the trail, Togo’s role was left out of news for nearly a century, in favour of the lead dog of another sled team that ran just the last leg of the relay, a Husky named Balto (who, by the way, Seppala also owned and had bred).

Injured Togo’s claim to fame was unfortunately denied but Seppala didn’t care, for he thought he would die. But Togo didn’t pass; he eventually took off his bandages, broke the doors of his house and became the leader of the pack yet again. Such are heroes and examples born, yet without celebration for nearly a century.

Our very own Togos

Dismayed as I am to write the rest of this piece, I shall, especially about today’s Togos, different from the ones of yore. Today’s Togos need to draw inspiration and sustenance from what even ‘dumb’ animals did for humankind nearly a century back. But now, the ground-level situation is dramatically divergent. We now have pinnacles of power, barking and growling, generally up the wrong tree. They lambast and ridicule their brethren, stake and claim rights to the same brethren’s past achievements and pass them off as their very own. Welcome to a new state of mind and chutzpah.

We have troublemakers in our midst now, and I speak of Togo only because he was from that genre, one that still made values and dedication endearing. Here’s why. Deemed for a few months as a mere troublemaker, Togo was abandoned twice before finally being identified as a natural leader and prodigy by his master Seppala. Togo went on to show courage and endurance as a puppy. As an adult, he continued to depict unusual feats of intelligence, saving the lives of his team and musher on many occasions. Sled dogs born of him have since contributed to the ‘Seppala Siberian’ sled-dog line, as well as the mainstream Siberian Husky gene pool. You want a Husky now, in India or otherwise—Togo is responsible somehow; for in his last few years, he was only a sire-dog. What a way to go, Togo!

Our Togos of today are less than appropriate or deserving. Why so? Well, for one, they are not truthful, faithful and run only the very visible last kilometre of any race, while others have gone through the grind earlier. Yet, they steal the thunder and claim it as their own.

What has gone wrong?

Well, we have. We have forgotten where we stem from and seemingly don’t give a damn about where we are headed. Hence, we find ourselves at a crossroad(s) that only yesteryear’s Togos could have (sur)mounted. We can’t. Why do I say that? For one, I at least do not have the perseverance of a Togo, or his enthusiasm. Collectively, as a people, all we do have is his ludicrous bark and fickle puppy mind. Bhow and bhow, my surroundings go in my dreams, as if to wake me up. That’s the new Togo of today.

What happened to the original Togo? Well, the doggie was finally celebrated in 2011, when ‘Time’ magazine researched and finally published his accomplishments. Thus, it took all of 86 years to celebrate a dog that saved over a thousand lives. I am taking nothing away from Balto, who had a statue dedicated to him in New York, for he did his bit in that serum-run in 1925. Nonetheless, the situation makes me sad, for I realize how it has taken us far fewer years to un-celebrate, even denounce the men and women who liberated our country barely 75 years back. Their achievements and sacrifices have not just been forgotten, but many have been denigrated in recent times and called vile names, with unsubstantiated and even fake stories vitiating them and thumbing a nose at their selfless accomplishments.

A good friend recently described his bewilderment at the change of attitude towards previous generations that have been wrought by a modern, selfish, disruptive and competitive world that has distorted history by imposing modern values and opinions on those of the past. I feel the same pain today, as I see the superstars of yesterday (well, that’s what they were, even though the celluloid was missing) being forgotten, or worse, demonized and maligned.

Final word on Nome

Back to Togo, who hailed from Alaska’s Nome town. Nome and the surrounding native villages were by far the communities hit hardest by the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic; the ‘Spanish Flu’. Hundreds died in the region, including babies who froze to death still held by their mothers who had succumbed to the influenza,. This horror, only seven years prior to the 1925 diphtheria run, was well within their living memory, and certainly in the minds of residents as they watched diphtheria spread among their children. That’s where Togo and several other sled-dog teams and their owners stepped in, risking life and limb to save the day, traversing the treacherous and frozen terrain for many excruciating days.

As always, let’s end with a quote, this one by Charles M Shultz: “All his life, he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For, after all, he was only human. He wasn’t a dog.” After writing this piece, I wouldn’t mind being a dog, or getting another one before I go.

The writer is a veteran journalist and communications specialist. He can be reached on Views expressed are personal

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