The day Ishmael came into my world, I had no idea that our bond would last almost two decades and counting. It was the late 1990s, and my son had taken a part-time job as a tree trimmer. It was summertime. He had been working in a forest in Yulee and in the woods, he stumbled upon a puppy. A gray ball of fluff with a little black nose and huge paws.
He was so small, emaciated and covered in ticks. He was on the verge of death. My son was a teenager, and like any child who finds a pup, he brought him home. Like any parent, who was in no position to take on a new pet at random, I took one look at the little fur ball with the big paws and said, “No. He will eat me out of house and home.”
The next day my son, Rob, took Ishmael to the local animal shelter. They examined his tiny, speckled black and pink tongue and said that because he had Chow Chow in him, they would most likely have to euthanize him. He snatched the pup up and brought him back home. I grew up on the water sailing, and life on the sea is a part of our family’s history. My son had just finished reading “Moby Dick” in school, and he decided that we would call him Ishmael. Later I looked up the name, and found out that Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Hagar, and was cast out into the wilderness. It was serendipitous.
We went to the grocery store and picked up some Alpo. I brought it home and cracked it open, dumped it in a bowl and gaged immediately that it was not fit for our dog. I drove back to the store and bought some lean meat and some high grade Purina. That evening I cooked his dinner, and have done this every night since. I decided that he would live a life of freedom, not restricted by the confines of civilization that drag us all down. Ishmael would keep his bits and pieces. People thought I was crazy, “an irresponsible pet owner.” They still do. Ishmael spends his days lounging in the shade in my yard in downtown Fernandina, but his adventurous spirit usually gets the best of him and he inevitably figures out a way to escape and go for a run. If anyone goes into our backyard, he immediately tries to shimmy by them through the gate. Then it’s game on. The dog is fast, and impossible to catch.
One day I was enjoying a cold one at a local watering hole and had tied up Ishmael outside of the establishment. When I came out, he was gone. Someone had dognapped him. The next morning I started getting phone calls of Ishmael sightings, heading from the far south end of Amelia Island back to town on the north end. After updates every 15 minutes from friends who spotted him on his journey, an hour later, he arrived at our backdoor and slept for 18 hours. It was a ten-mile adventure home.
Today, Ishmael is pushing twenty-years-old and has lived in perfect health. He lived the way I did as a kid, roaming the neighborhood, sometimes learning life lessons the hard way, but for the most part experiencing the world in all of its beautiful openness.
Some locals want the City Commission to declare him a “Heritage Dog,” because he is an elder pup, and they believe he deserves a lifetime dispensation for violating city ordinances. Regardless of where he stands with the law, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, he was “born to run.”
Photography by Woody Huband