Bridger has more time served at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Menemsha than any of his station mates, and he’s got the drill down pat.
In fact, patting is a big part of military life for Bridger, a yellow lab who’s lived more than seven of his 12 years as mascot at the up-Island station. He is named after the Bridger Mountains in Montana, which in turn take their name from Jim Bridger, legendary mid-18th century Western mountain man.
He was a gift from a summer family about to move to a Manhattan high rise who felt Bridger would be happier cavorting around the edge of Menemsha Pond. They were right.
Bridger is a happy dog, as you might expect with 22 shipmates who care for him. But he also takes some self-appointed duties seriously. “Oh yeah, when he hears someone coming, he’s at the front door like a sentry,” Seaman Matt Lawson said. “And it’s funny. If visitors are not wearing our uniform, he barks. He knows the uniform.” In uniform or out, visitors are eventually treated to a tail-wagging and tongue-licking inspection.
“Dogs are a tradition in the U.S. Coast Guard,” station chief Jason Olsen said. “Every cutter had a dog on board at one time.” Certainly the tradition gained traction during World War II when more than 2,000 dogs were trained and accompanied guardsmen on beach patrols to sniff out submarines and saboteurs.
Coast Guard lineage dates to formation of the U.S Cutter Revenue Service in 1790 by then U.S. Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton, In those days, a fleet of speedy “revenue cutters” were under orders to watch for and to intercept smuggler’s attempts to offload untaxed and contraband cargo on the shores and inlets along the east coast. In 1915, the revenue service and the U.S. Lifesaving Service were combined into the modern U.S. Coast Guard.
Chief Olsen and Seaman Daniel Phillips, who’ve had several postings around the country, said the canine tradition today is strongest along the East Coast. “Having a dog is common among the East Coast stations — in Florida and the Carolinas, and up through New England,” Mr. Phillips said.
The Menemsha station is manned 24 hours a day and Bridger sleeps on the third deck (floor) with the on-duty crew. His daily routine begins at 6 am. “That’s 6 am, not 6:01,” Mr. Lawson laughed, adding that Bridger has no qualms about using a cold nose to roust late risers.
Bridger is assigned a “keeper” by the station chief. In this case, Seaman Maggie Dodson volunteered for the job. She enjoys it. “He’s good for morale, particularly if someone’s having a bad day,” she said. “Just spend a few minutes with him and you feel better.”
Bridger may have 22 people for friends, but this is the military and there are rules, even for mascots. “Years back, someone, we think it was a cook, trained him not to enter the galley or the mess deck,” Mr. Phillips said.
“But you can be sure he’s at the doorway for every meal,” Ms. Dodson added.
“We tell the ‘boots’ (new seamen) that they can learn a thing or two from Bridger,” Mr. Lawson said.
Bridger has given half his tail in the service of his country. “The story goes that he injured his tail in a door and they had to dock half of it,” Mr. Lawson said. “He hasn’t put in for disability though. Maybe he’ll double-dip (retirement and disability checks).”
Half a tail hasn’t slowed Bridger down, his crewmates say. He still patrols the perimeter, warring on rodents bold enough to wander onto his turf. But he can’t catch them anymore, due to a combination of age and hip issues common to the breed. “We don’t take him on the boat much now,” Mr. Lawson said. “Occasionally he comes, but his hips give him trouble in rolling seas and then he has a tendency to seasickness.”
But Bridger is never sick of being in the water. He’ll slip away for a swim, “even in 34-degree water… but he’s always back at 4 pm for chow,” Mr. Phillips said.
Bridger’s real value may be the company he provides in the station, which can be a solitary place in February.
“We want to strike a balance in our personal and professional lives here,” Chief Olsen said. “We function better when both are in balance. We spend more time at work than at home, so the more we can make the station feel like home, the better.”