The crew of Coast Guard Station Menemsha buried Bridger at sea Wednesday. The military ceremony, held aboard the station’s workhorse 47-foot motor lifeboat in the waters off the Vineyard, paid tribute to a crew member who served with flawless loyalty and unremitting devotion.
On the way out to the sea, the crew swapped stories about Bridger, both good and bad. They recalled when Bridger made a huge mess and how it took him more than a year to reclaim the petty officer first class insignia on his dog collar that he lost in that incident. And how Bridger gave them all unconditional love.
With the crew assembled on the afterdeck of the motor lifeboat for the commital service and the flag lowered to half mast, Station Chief Jason Olsen read from prepared remarks.
“We are gathered here to recognize the life and efforts of our mascot, Bridger. He was a great companion and shipmate for everyone assigned to Station Menemsha and members of the community for over six years. It was more enjoyable to come to work and see Bridger waiting on the front porch to greet you when you arrived and left work.
“He was an excellent keeper of the Station. He would always bark whenever someone came up to the Station and kept a good eye on the crew during his rounds of the station, especially at meal times.
“It’s fitting that he is going into the ocean since he liked going on the boats, when he was younger of course, and loved going swimming whenever he could. He will surely be missed.”
With his remarks completed, Chief Olsen read a passage from the 23rd Psalm.
Petty Officer Dan Phillips spread Bridger’s ashes on the ocean.
“In sure and certain hope of God’s abiding love and presence, we dedicate our beloved mascot Bridger,” Chief Olsen said, “as we commit his body to the ocean depths in gratitude for all the joy and dedication he offered to each of us.”
The service ended with a benediction from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
Menemsha not Manhattan
Bridger was a big yellow Lab, and because of that and the nature of the breed, he dispensed his affection regardless of rank and status.
Bridger had served more time at Station Menemsha than any of his crew mates. Before he died on September 22, he spent the last seven of his 12 years as mascot at the up-Island station.
He was named after the Bridger Mountains in Montana, which in turn take their name from Jim Bridger, legendary mid-18th century Western mountain man.
Bridger was given a transfer from a summer family about to move to a Manhattan high rise. They thought Bridger would be happier nosing around Menemsha Pond. They were right.
Bridger took his self-appointed duties seriously. When visitors, not wearing a Coast Guard uniform, arrived at the station house front door, he barked and wagged his tail (what was left of it following a door accident) and wagged it some more.
The Menemsha station is manned 24 hours a day. Bridger slept on the third deck (floor) with the on-duty crew. He awakened when they did, 6 am, and as Petty Officer Philips said, Bridger never failed to return at 4 pm sharp, when the crew fed him dinner. And often it was no surprise when Bridger would show up soaking wet because he went swimming or if someone brought Bridger back because he went too far out to the beach where pets weren’t allowed.
Military service can be difficult even on Martha’s Vineyard. The hustle and bustle of summer is absent in the long, dead of winter. Menemsha can be a lonely place for new crew members far from family and home.
Executive Petty Officer Jason Chappa said Bridger and his two-year-old chocolate lab bonded instantly. They would go out on walks together and play together in the station. Bridger, though 10 years older, didn’t care about the age difference. He was simply happy to make a new friend.
Bridger was family. He returned every pat in kind.
A long line
He followed in a long tradition of Coast Guard mascots. The U.S. Life Saving Service built a station and boathouse, which in 1895 became Coast Guard Station Gay Head. The station building was near Gay Head Light and the boathouse on the shore west of Dogfish Bar. The first keeper was Nehemiah C. Hayman, who was appointed October 4, 1895, according to a Coast Guard history of the station. One of the few photos of the crew shows them standing with their mascot, a dog named Rex.
Retired Coasties like to swap tales. Bridger and Rex undoubtably have a lot to talk about.