When I relate the many stories from my career as a park ranger many have said "You should write a book". I always joked that it would have to be marketed as a piece of fiction because no one would believe it to be true.
I am well on my way to writing this book. Below are a couple of selections from the latest draft of the book. I hope you enjoy.
Oaks, Hickories, and Other Nuts
My Life as a Tree Pig
I was nervous. I was scared. It was my first day as a “Tree Pig”. I was so proud of wearing the uniform with the badge proudly announcing to the world that I was a Park Ranger! I walked into the maintenance building at Suson County Park and anxiously looked about for the ranger I was to ride with for the day. Back in the corner I saw someone seated in a dilapidated office chair with his feet propped up on a picnic table and a newspaper spread wide open hiding his face and body. Clouds of cigarette smoke swirled about him creating an other worldly image straight out of a grade B detective film. I stood there shuffling about waiting for him to greet me. No greeting was forthcoming! I coughed softly to announce my presence and still no acknowledgement of my being in the room. Finally I blurted out with great pride “I’m Marty the new Park Ranger”. Slowly the paper folded half-way down revealing his fixed stare over his metal rimmed glasses. His look was something like a cross between Charles Bronson and Don Rickles with a bit of Attila the Hun attitude thrown in for good measure. He was quite intimidating! He snarled out “Whoopti Fuckin’ Do” and the paper went back up and he continued to read. A long period of silence followed.
began a nearly 30 year career with the County Parks Department in St. Louis
Missouri. This was just the first in a
long series of misadventures, friendships, unusual people, that would be my life for the next three
Oh, the guy described above became one of my best friends and as good a patrol partner as anyone could ask for! Once you get to know him he is really a big old teddy bear down deep, sometimes real deep. But a better friend you could not ask for.
As a small child my father would often take me camping and trout fishing at Montauk State Park. In the campground I had my first encounter with a park ranger. Everyone seemed to take a liking to him and many spent time talking to him. Over the years I repeatedly heard people say to the rangers of Montauk State Park that they really wished they had his job.
I guess this is where I first thought that a park ranger would be a really cool job! After college I drifted about trying to find work. With a tight job market in 1975 I failed in my attempts to be a Bus Driver, Broadcasting Sales Rep, and a myriad of other professions. Someone told my dad about a part time job as a park ranger in the local county parks department. I applied and much to my surprise I was hired. How that hiring came about is another story that is described later in the book. I thought it would be a temporary thing until I found my true calling. Thirty years later I retired a poor man but rich in many thrilling experiences.
What I found in the park ranger ranks was a brotherhood as strong as any. It was the complete package with great friends, a baffling bureaucracy that confounded common sense, and a world of really strange and unique visitors and coworkers. I saw things that defy description. Things that most would not believe could happen in a park. Things that scared me to death as well as things that brought me great joy and satisfaction. And last but not least, funny things that brought me to the point of uncontrolled laughter, often at very inappropriate times.
My fellow rangers and I were part of a true family. A family full of love and compassion for each other and the citizens we served. Like any family, we had or share of fights and misunderstandings, but the brotherhood we enjoyed was like that of soldiers, police officers, and firefighters. Not one of us would hesitate to do whatever was necessary to protect another. We worked hard and in our younger days, partied hard, but always put service and mission ahead of all else. It was a spirit of comrade that still lives between us old retired rangers. It continues to this day to be a bond unbroken!
It did not take me long to realize that a park systems is just a small slice of the real world. Anything that happens in life eventually happens in a park. Even though our park system was located in an urban environment our visitors were statistically safer than in their own homes. The fact that the public has such a great image of their parks is a testament to the park rangers who dedicate their lives to providing a safe and secure place for people to recreate.
With all that being said, nothing could have prepared me for the roller coaster ride I was about to embark on. Over my years as a park ranger I have been attacked by devil worshipers wielding a live chicken, surrounded by ninja’s, peed on, vomited on, defecated on, attacked by a riotous mob, had a contract put out on my life, accused of brutality, sued, bitten, and called every name in the book. So sit back and come along on my journey of discovery.
This book is a compilation of the people, places and situations that were part of my career. They are all true, but the names have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, and the idiots of the world. It is broken into topical chapters that explore the full range of the human condition.
IN THE BEGINNING
My first days as a ranger were exciting and eye opening to say the least. I worked with a couple of full time rangers for almost a week before I was let out on my own. In the beginning the training was minimal. My first assignment was at a park on the Meramec River that focused on boating. This park was also a hangout for the type of people commonly referred to as “rednecks”. While these park users were generally nice people the addition of alcohol to the mix sometimes resulted in some rowdy behavior.
Through the course of three decades I learned many lessons on how to safely and successfully perform the job. Right off the bat day one provided me the first of many lessons learned. This first lesson was one which for obvious reasons stuck with me for rest of my career.
I was young and naive and believed that all people were basically good and they only wanted to come to the park for good clean fun. I honestly believed that park rangers were so beloved that the job would be a piece of cake. So you can imagine my shock when during the first hour that I was on my own in a park I saw a smelly bearded rough looking man standing in the middle of the parking lot urinating in front of dozens of families. I was incredulous! Approaching him from behind I demanded to know what he thought he was doing. He spun around loudly proclaiming “I really gotta go” as he pissed all over my freshly pressed uniform and highly polished shoes. Suddenly my pride evaporated as the onlookers could not help but break into laughter.
Lesson #1: When dealing with a person urinating in public always stay out of spraying distance until they are finished.
Later, after my uniform had dried, a visitor approached me. While trying to ascertain where the stale urine smell was coming from, he asked if it was O.K. to Bar-B-Que on the picnic tables. I assured him it was. About ten minutes later my attention was drawn to the picnic shelter where a wooden table was fully engulfed in flames. As I got to the scene it appeared that the visitor has spread charcoal directly on the table and set it ablaze with lighter fluid. After my shock at his stupidity gave way to bewilderment, I demanded to know what the hell he was thinking. He replied, “Ranger you told me I could Bar-B-Que on the tables”. He had a good point although most rational people would have used a portable pit.
Lesson #2: You need to be very specific in your answers when a visitor asks a question.
Lesson #3: Never underestimate the stupidity of some park visitors.
Our park ranges had full police powers - a fact that sometimes came as a shock to the law breakers we dealt with. I don’t know how many times a prisoner would laugh it off and say “you’re just a park ranger”.
Here is a tip, if you ever violate the law in a park want to ensure an arrest by a park ranger just repeat that phrase over and over while arrogantly smirking at the ranger. Be sure to use your best condescending voice. It will work every time.
I had been putting off making my first full custody arrest for quite a while. I had issued lots of traffic tickets and summons for minor infractions, but had not yet had to place the cuffs on a prisoner and convey him to jail. As in many things in life, the first time is downright scary.
While working Creve Coeur Park one afternoon I asked a young eighteen year old male to put his dog on a leash following a visitor complaint. I don’t know what it is about leash law violations, but they often proved to be very difficult situations to handle. For some reason a simple request to leash a dog often resulted in a summons or full custody arrest as the violator became very uncooperative, belligerent and sometimes violent.
This was the case on this otherwise beautiful afternoon. This gentleman was with a group of about 20 friends and was combative from the beginning. He began a verbal assault on me the likes of which I had not seen in the course of my short career. As a matter of fact, this guy was the first person to call me a “Tree Pig”.
In the 70’s this is the name young people gave to us. I thought it was cute and creative of them, but they used it as a very derogatory term. After about 20 minutes of our not so gentlemanly discussion I advised him that if he would not leash his dog and keep it under control he would have to leave the park. I further advised him that if he refused to leave he would be arrested for trespassing and failure to comply with the reasonable request of an officer.
This was the moment that I was dreading. He would not leash the animal, he would not leave, and his gaggle of friends began to get involved by surrounding me and joining in on the fun. After more than 40 minutes of dealing with his abuse it was time to take action.
It must have been quite a sight to see him continuing his threats and refusing to comply with any of my requests while all the time I was visibly trembling with fear and shouting orders in the crackling voice of a teen at puberty. The crowd closed in on me. It became a real circus as I tried to cuff him and put him in the patrol car. The crowd surged and the loose dog that began the incident latched on to my leg in defense of his master. Being totally inexperienced in handling aggressive prisoners it was less than a professional take down and arrest. I drug him through the crowd who were shoving and striking me with fists and sticks. The dog was still firmly attached to my right ankle. I then put out a call for backup, something that I should have done a half hour earlier. Finally I got the dog off my leg and secured to a tree. Reinforcements arrived and we got the crowd dispersed. Animal control was called to take the dog to the shelter and I drove to the nearest police station to book the prisoner. I thought to myself the incident is finally over. It did not go well, but at least I was not hurt in the confrontation.
All the way to the police station he shouted at me from the back seat of the patrol car that he had connections and he would never see the jail. After spitting on me a couple of times he advised me that he would get me fired. This was the first of several hundred times that people threatened to get me fired. I managed to last for 30 years so I guess none of them were that well connected.
As I walked into the booking room with the prisoner the desk sergeant said I had a phone call. On the phone was a politician who was running for the county executive (mayor) office threatening to fire me if I did not release the prisoner? He also indicated that if I released his friend I may find myself promoted if he won the election. I waved the police captain into the room and put the call on the speaker phone for all to hear. After listening to the outrageous rants of the politician the captain grabbed the phone and in no uncertain terms let him know the reality of the arrest and his lack of influence on it. Thankfully, the politician lost the election by a big margin and I never got fired or promoted as a result. Again, I thought the incident was over.
About a month and a half later I received a subpoena to testify in court at the violators’ trial. Again I was facing another first. I had never testified in court and I was quite nervous. Walking into the courtroom the defendant’s lawyer stopped me and told me that I was going to win as it was an open and shut case. He said the boy’s father was a client of his and dad had insisted that the case go to court. If he had pleaded guilty the total fine on the charges would have been about $50. Dad said his son was never guilty of anything in his life and that I was on a big power trip. All through the proceedings the father stared menacingly at me. The "perfect son" was found guilty and fined $300. I was greatly relieved that the case was finally over. At last I was done with the whole horrible ordeal of my first arrest.
As I walked out of the courtroom the father grabbed my arm and said “hope you can swim real well with cement overshoes”. I immediately returned to the judge who was already starting the next case. After explaining the threat to the judge he asked the father what he had said to me. Dad replied he was just joking. When pressed by the judge he eventually repeated the threat. The judge had him hauled off to jail for contempt of court and threatening a police officer and imposed a $2500 fine. The father’s attorney sunk in his chair and slowly shook his head in disbelief.
Some first arrest! After this most of the rest seemed like a piece of cake.
Lesson #4 : The simplest of problems can go very bad very fast.
WHACKY & WHACKED OUT PEOPLE
In this job you soon learn that just when you think you have seen it all something new will smack you right between the eyes. Over the years I had the “pleasure” of interacting with so many unique park visitors. Too many crazies to remember them all, but some are indelibly etched in my mind. As a ranger you learned to never be surprised, shocked, or startled by the “uniqueness” of some of the park visitors. Following are the stories of a few of the more interesting characters encountered in the line of duty.
Working in Jefferson Barracks Park located on the south side of St. Louis you learned to expect the unexpected. The park seemed to be a magnet for crazies, wacko’s, and strange people of all stripes. One very hot afternoon I was parked under a shade tree near the historic district of the park eating lunch when a rather haggard looking visitor approached my vehicle and stated that there was a very large black owl in a tree by the river that was hooting at her. The lady seemed to be somewhat disoriented and was out of breath from running up from the river. I assured her that owls were of no threat to people and she was indeed very lucky to see one in the daylight. She kept insisting that I did not understand what she was trying to tell me. She kept repeating that it was a very, very big black owl hooting at her in particular. I said that I would check it out and take care of the problem if the “owl” was at all threatening. I went to the area she described and after a short search I found nothing.
The next evening I was flagged down on the road on the west side of the park by another park visitor who also said he was hooted at from the trees. However this citizen conveyed one important detail that the report from the day before left out. It was a large, bald headed black male with all gold teeth that was sitting in the tree hooting at those walking under his perch. Obviously this added a whole new dimension to the situation.
I went to the area where the incident had just occurred and sure enough here was a bald headed black male about 6 foot 3 inches tall smiling down at me with a mouth of gold teeth. I ask him to come down from the tree and he just smiled and hooted at me for about five minutes. Finally he shimmied down the tree trunk and as soon as his feet hit the ground he was off. While I was never good at foot pursuits he appeared to be one of the fastest human beings I have ever seen. He got away easily traveling at breakneck speeds over very rough terrain.
Over the next 10 days or so there was a long string of reports of what we dubbed the “Owl Man”. Often we would chase him and he always easily outpaced whoever was chasing him.
Most of the wacko’s we encountered were harmless albeit very strange people. as he never showed any violent tendencies we thought Owl Man was a harmless nut. He was just a very strange man who liked sitting in trees hooting at people and being chased. His status as a harmless nut was about to take a dangerous turn.
One night at about 10 pm I received a radio dispatch to a building in the park where a wedding reception was being held. The report said that a man with a knife was threatening guests at the party. As I entered the building Owl Man was standing there threatening one of the bride’s maids with a very large hunting knife. As soon as I started walking towards him he bolted out another door and I gave chase. A search of the area by several rangers and a large number of county police offers was again a futile effort. Once again he disappeared into the night.
Now that this had escalated into a very serious matter we began make plans to catch Owl Man before anyone got hurt. The second day of this effort found Owl Man walking along the main park road without a care in the world. A total of about 6 officers gave chase. And a good chase it was. We went over hills and gullies, jumping logs and tearing through the thickets. He made it over and through these obstacles effortlessly. He never tripped, hesitated or faltered in his dash to freedom. Those in pursuit were stumbling and tripping. One after another would fall victim to hidden holes, low branches and other hazards. Whatever else he was, Owl Man was a world class sprinter. With some officers on foot and others in patrol cars we eventually captured Owl Man just as he was about to jump into the swift currents of the Mighty Mississippi River. It was off to jail where Owl Man faced charges of assault with a deadly weapon, trespassing, and resisting arrest.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE STRANGE KIND
One evening while closing and locking our Sculpture Park I came across one car and a strange little man who looked a little bit like Rick Moranis of Ghostbusters fame. He was standing in the center of the empty and very dark parking lot pointing a flashlight upward to the sky. He flashed a repeating pattern of light beams into the heavens. . I cautiously approached him and asked what he was up to. He replied that he would be gone soon as he was signaling the mother ship to come pick him up. His mission was complete and he just wanted to get to his home world.
After a few years on the job you learn to control you laughter and that it is sometimes best to “humor” the strange ones. I asked when he expected to be picked up and he said very soon. I told him that the space landing area was just outside of the park gates and he should wait there for the arrival. Sometimes going along with the strange ones can have the desired effect with a minimum of confrontation. Unfortunately this was not one of those times.
He bolted and another foot pursuit was on. He eventually ran from the park as a couple of local police officers joined the chase. He ran through the back yards of more than a few very expensive homes. We continued searching for him for about an hour before we gave up. I returned to the park to await his arrival to claim his vehicle. I was really perplexed as I found every window in the car shattered and blown outward. Nary a shard of glass was in the car but rather sprayed in all directions in the parking lot. It was like the windows had been sucked out from the outside. He never returned to get the vehicle so it was towed to the impound yard where it went unclaimed and eventually auctioned off. He was never seen again. Very strange indeed!
Lesson #5 : Sometimes the impossible just might indeed be possible.
ARE YOU MAN ENOUGH?
One bright sunny Sunday a young man swaggered up to me and in his best vibrato voice told me he had some felony warrants out on him and he asked me if I was man enough to take him in. Well, he did and thankfully I was! He had four warrants for auto theft and one for evading arrest.
Lesson #6 : No matter how stupid a visitors statements are, they just might be telling the truth.