Boys’ Life Fiction: ‘The Ballad of Runny Nose’

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Written by Mark Henry | Illustrations by AG Ford

Not counting the normal, Oklahoma stuff from his dad’s side of the family, 15-year-old Jimmy Dugan had 11 names. Most of them were pretty weird, but the name his Eskimo grandfather gave him looked as if it might even get him killed.

A gray cloud of ice-fog surrounded his face with every panting breath. Deep, bone-numbing cold seeped through the thick fur of Jimmy’s parka. His feet, layered in heavy wool socks and sealskin mukluks, felt like frozen blocks of meat.

His body was one big ice-cream headache.

Under low clouds and a weak arctic sun, seven huskies shivered in harness, bushy tails curled around their feet. Eyes, rimmed in tiny ice crystals, squinted against the bitter air. The thermometer hanging on the handle of Jimmy’s dogsled read 37 below.

Spit snapped before it hit the ground in such conditions. Trees exploded as sap turned to ice. The dogs’ feet cracked and bled. Jimmy had heard stories of men who’d cut off their own frostbitten fingers just to survive.

He stopped the team on a frozen pond in the middle of an endless white plain. There was no wind, and the moisture from his breath and the panting dogs pooled into a foggy soup at his feet.

Jimmy kicked at the swirling cloud with his mukluk, then slumped against the sled, clenching his teeth in a shiver that shook his entire body. A dozen other figures, some on snow machines, some with dogs, moved like gray dots up and down the river — all searching, just like him.

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It was March, the season Yup’ik Eskimo call “When-Seals-Are-Born.” Back in Tulsa, Jimmy’s friends would be mowing their lawns. But in Alaska, on the ice-covered tundra of the Yukon Delta, winter wouldn’t release her frozen grip until May. He wished his dad’s deployment in Iraq would end so his mother would take them back home — back to civilization.

He was only a kid from Oklahoma, no matter what his grandfather said.

In Yup’ik tradition, almost every-one gave him a different name. To his grandmother he was Kakeggluk, translated as “Runny Nose,” because he was allergic to just about every-thing on the planet. Auntie Vera called him “Dear Little Husband,” because when Jimmy was a baby, he’d supposedly looked like his big-eared great uncle, who’d died shortly before he was born.

All the names were dorky, but the one his grandfather gave him caused the most trouble: Nukalpiaq. It sounded like he was clearing his throat when he said it. Nukalpiaq — “Great Hunter.”

What a joke. Jimmy had never hunted anything but a few ducks —and he wasn’t very successful at that.

Then two boys went missing while they were out checking blackfish traps set below the river ice. With most of the men from the village off hunting seals, the boys’ mother had come to beg Nukalpiaq for help.

“Surely,” she’d explained through her tears, “the Great Hunter’s grand-father had seen something special in him. …” Her boys were only 6 and 8 years old. Surely someone with such a name could help her find her little ones before they froze to death.

Jimmy had been up and down the river six times already without finding a single track. He buried his face in his mittens, wracking his brain for what his grandfather would do.

“Tie my teachings in your boot-laces so you don’t lose ’em,” the old man always said when he finished a lesson. He’d passed away in the darkest time of winter — the season Yup’ik call “Worst-of-the-Moon.”

“Grandpa,” Jimmy muttered, standing up with a groan. “I should’ve tied your words on better. Those boys are out here somewhere —maybe dead already. … I’m freezing and I don’t know what to do. What were you thinking? People expect too much from a boy named Great Hunter.”

“If you don’t know which way to go,” Jimmy’s grandfather had taught him, “say a little prayer, then trust your dogs. If they turn, don’t stop ’em. They’ll take you where you need to go. Tie these words in your bootlaces. …”

The huskies tugged at their harnesses, eager to get moving in the cold. Chinook, the lead dog, threw back his great, gray head and gave a mournful howl.

Jimmy’s grandfather once said that long ago, animals and man had lived together and spoken the same language. Then a great divide opened up, separating man from the others. As the canyon grew wider, dog
jumped across at the last possible instant, choosing to stay with his friend, man. Even now, dog’s sorrow-ful howl was his way of talking to his wild brothers across that great divide.

“If you don’t know which way to go,” Jimmy’s grandfather had taught him, “say a little prayer, then trust your dogs. If they turn, don’t stop ’em. They’ll take you where you need to go. Tie these words in your bootlaces. …”

“OK, Chinook,” Jimmy hollered. “You asked for it, boy. Trust, it is. Hike! Hike!” (People called “mush” to their dogs only in the movies.)
The huskies nearly tugged the sled out of Jimmy’s hands. Subzero air seared his lungs as he trotted to jump aboard the runners. There was no sound but the jingle of the dogs’ traces and the hiss of the sled over ice.

“The great Runny Nose,” Jimmy snorted under the huge wolverine ruff of his parka hood. “Off to save the day.”

The dogs suddenly veered right, toward the middle of a smaller river that fed into the mighty Yukon. Chinook stopped in his tracks, looking back over broad shoulders. He sniffed the air. Frosty steam from his panting drifted in the still air.

The sun, lower now, peeked between gray clouds and the frozen expanse of the Bering Sea. In the long shadows ahead of the dogs, Jimmy saw two impressions in the snow. Faint tracks followed the trail of a snowshoe hare, barely visible in the rock-hard ridges of white. Ten yards farther, they vanished at the edge of a gaping hole he’d missed on his earlier searches.

His blood turned to ice. The river was deep here and never froze all the way to the bottom. If the boys had fallen through —

“Chinook! Haw! Haw!” Jimmy cried.

The powerful lead dog obeyed, dragging his teammates and the sled to the left. He stopped dead-even with the treacherous break.

Chinook whined at the jagged hole. Slowly, the dog tugged the sled toward it. The ice hummed and popped like gnashing teeth beneath their combined weight.

“Chinook, no!” Jimmy stomped on the brake. “Stupid dog, you’ll kill us all —”

“Helloooo!” A muffled cry rose from the ice.

Jimmy threw back his heavy fur hood despite the bitter cold. “Hello?”

“M-m-ma-mamaaaa!” a second voice sobbed.

Quickly, Jimmy unsnapped the gang line and anchored the dogs to the ice with the claw brake. Then, flat on his belly in the basket of the empty sled, he inched forward. The long runners distributed his weight, and he moved to the edge of the hole.

Two boys gazed up from the blue-gray shadows three feet below. An early freeze had flash-frozen the river. The water level beneath the ice had dropped before it had frozen solid again, leaving a cave-like tunnel between two sheets of ice. The boys had found a weak spot and fallen through the top layer.

Frozen tears streaked dirty faces, framed by fur parka hoods. Pudgy cheeks almost closed their eyes as they grinned up at Jimmy.

“Runny Nose!” The 6-year-old’s mouth gaped in surprise. “You have come to save us?”

“Your mother’s worried about you.” Jimmy peered down between the wooden slats of his sled. He was suddenly much warmer than before. “You were smart to stay where you broke through.”

“Grandfather says to stay put if we are lost,” the older boy said. “We tied his words in our bootlaces so we wouldn’t forget them.”

Jimmy shot a quick glance at his lead dog, which gave him a wide-mouthed yawn. “We all have some things tied to our bootlaces today. …”

The boys shivered badly as Jimmy hauled them up from beneath the ice. He gave them hot chocolate from his thermos and some oatmeal cookies he had kept under his parka so they wouldn’t freeze solid.

As Jimmy stepped on the sled runners, the younger boy turned from his nest of blankets, his lip covered in a frothy, hot-chocolate mustache. “Can we go home, Runny Nose?”

His older brother gave him a stiff elbow to the ribs. “You call him Nukalpiaq. Runny Nose isn’t polite.”

“Either one.” Jimmy smiled, urging the dogs toward the village. “Either one suits me fine.”

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