"That is Fat Albert, my lead dog," Perry replied.
"Well, where you have him at the moment," Lake said, "he looks more like an overweight hood ornament." Titillated by his name, newscasters gave Perry's lead dog a big play, one of them urging listeners to ship plastic fireplugs up the Iditarod Trail because Fat Albert was too sophisticated to use rural facilities. The National Observer, an astute journal that records the joyful happenings of the world without neglecting the horrors, adopted Fat Albert. To touch the hearts of readers across the U.S., the newspaper needed only to tell it as it was. In the 1973 and 1974 races, Fat Albert was a smart leader, a great trailbreaker and plugger who could not be headed by the worst winds, but he was also a ham and a boulevardier, a lover of people and city lights. In this bed of truth the legends about him sprouted and keep growing. As they now are told, Fat Albert rode most of the way to Nome in both races and was put in lead harness only 10 or 15 miles outside of each town; at the first scent of habitation or loom of light in the night sky, he would charge forward at 15 miles an hour. In truth, Fat Albert footed it all the way in 1974. He did ride about 100 miles early in the first race after he was bitten by a teammate in a fight over a bitch named Ieta.
At the Last Chance Bar on the Yukon, when a drunk tried to steal Perry's sled to chase a rival who had stolen his girl, Fat Albert did not—as the story usually goes—drive the thief away. Nor was he palsy with the filcher while he was dumping Perry's gear off the sled, as others claim. Fat Albert maintained a neutral stance throughout the contretemps at the Last Chance Bar. Furthermore, in the 1974 race when Perry fell asleep on the runners, Fat Albert did not turn the team around and lead them back 30 miles to the bright lights of the town of White Mountain. He was only 15 miles out when he turned around and headed back to town.
Because of newscasts, the lore of Fat Albert preceded him along the trail. When Perry was five miles out of Golovin on Norton Sound, he could have sworn he heard the constant, distant crying of seabirds. It turned out to be all the children of Golovin waiting for their favorite Iditarod dog on high ground above the ice, whistling and chanting, " Fat Albert. Fat Albert." At Kaltag on the Yukon two years ago Fat Albert was allowed to sleep in a cabin with Perry so the children would not pester him. When Perry awoke once in the night, there were a dozen adults hovering around Fat Albert. When he next awoke, a number of the adults were doing a dance in the dog's honor.
The children of Kaltag asked Perry to have Fat Albert kill a mean dog named Cinders owned by Tom Mercer, a musher from Talkeetna. Perry told the kids it was against the rules of the race, but that once across the finish line, Fat Albert would certainly let Cinders have it. As it turned out, it was Fat Albert who almost got it in Nome. As the tale now runs in its richest form, when Perry was within 100 yards of the finish line at 3:30 in the morning, a taxicab coming out of a side street broadsided Fat Albert, the impact throwing the driver from his machine and leaving Fat Albert on his back with four feet straight up in the air. Actually the collision occurred about 250 yards from the finish, and Fat Albert was not broadsided by the cab. He was hit head on in such a clean fashion that both he and his co-leader, Shorty, and the pair of dogs behind them disappeared under the taxi as if sucked up by a large vacuum cleaner.
No matter at what hour a sled team arrives, Nome usually has officials out to greet it. Probably because he was traveling without a light, Perry had been missed in the wee hours by the spotters several miles out of town. Since none of his team seemed more than shaken up by the collision, after giving the cab driver the what-for, Perry mushed on across the finish line and started to bed down in the middle of Front Street. His only greeter in the next 20 minutes was a drunk who came wandering along and wanted to know if Fat Albert and his cohorts were sled dogs. "No," Perry replied. "They are a new kind of giraffe."
In the 1974 Iditarod race 15 dogs died. Two were shot by a musher to ensure getting the rest of the team through a bad ground storm. Two died of causes that could have taken them at any time. The other deaths can be written off—but not excused—as a consequence involving God and man: four days of the worst weather in the Alaska Range and an inadequate number of stations where mushers could drop off doubtful and ailing dogs. In the 1975 race 39 mushers and 508 dogs took off for Nome. Twenty-five mushers and 188 dogs went all the way. A large number of the non-finishers quit as team units, but a bush pilot, Larry Thompson, picked up 120 dogs dropped at 18 checkpoints on the trail, flying them homeward or to stops where commercial liners could carry them on. In 1975 every musher was required to make at least one 24-hour layover, and there were 10 veterinarians posted on the trail to counsel mushers and to hold any dog they thought unfit. Five dogs died, one freakishly, the other four certainly as a consequence of the tough conditions—considerable improvement over the preceding year but not enough to satisfy some strident dog lovers.
As long as any husky dies at it, there will be some who want the mushing game abolished. Such well-meant tenderness, of course, only hurts sled dogs in the long run. Historically they are dogs of purpose. Abolish their rough trade and they all sit on the edge of oblivion. At a civic meeting a few years back a lady told Joe Redington Sr. that she was going to have all racing stopped. In his usual easy way, Redington said, "Madam, you just condemned about 1,000 of a beautiful kind of dog to death."
The husky, like any other decent dog or man, needs protection today from the self-appointed pure in heart who storm around the world making it a better place for everybody to live in—their way. All a husky really needs to prosper in its customary style is the fellowship of men and women, and other dogs game enough to travel with it through the miseries of an Alaskan winter.