My most adventurous summertime job was working for the Game Fish and Parks in South Dakota. It was my first summer home from college and I was looking forward to the new position where I could spend time in the great outdoors. More specifically, I would spend three days a week helping an older guy pick up trash and two nights a week guarding a park.
Picking up trash consisted of driving across the northeastern part of the state, going from one fishing spot to another in a pickup truck. We’d pull into off a small obscure state highway unto a smaller, more obscure county road and then take a sharp turn onto a an unpaved gravel road from where we then slid off the gravel onto a single-lane dirt road. Eventually this road led to the side of a small lake with a trash barrel full of fish guts that had been baking in the sun for the past seven days. Our job was to lift the leaky barrel of fish guts and maggots onto the back of the truck and replace it with a clean, new barrel for another fisherman to fill with fish guts that we could pick up the next week. (The maggots came on their own volition.) Every so often on our way home, we’d pick up a dead deer off the road and throw it in the back to keep the fish company.
When I wasn’t loading trash barrels, I was a night park ranger at Sandy Shore State Park. Sandy Shore had the best swimming beach in the area because of — you guessed it — its sandy shores. In addition to the shoreline, the park offered multiple spots were campers could rest, nestled amongst trees and cushioned by the sweet green grass of the Great Plains. My job (from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.) was to sit in a truck (not really a truck — it was a Chevy Luv) at the entrance to the park and collect fees from anyone coming to camp for the night. In addition, I sold firewood and drove around the park to see if there where any friendly campers who needed a “howdy” from a park ranger. During those hourly drives, I was also on the alert for forest fires to extinguish or shenanigans going on that needed to be discouraged. (Shenanigans were, essentially, the breaking of any state park rule such as swimming after hours, motor boating after hours, excessive noise, or raising Cain.)
If you know me, it might be hard to imagine my being someone who could discourage shenanigans. I’m not a very big guy and back then I was even smaller. All I had going for me was I wore an ill-fitting uniform with a State Seal patched on my shirt sleeve (this is the same State Seal that was on the side of my Chevy Luv). Basically, I looked like Barney Fife except not nearly as physically intimidating or as competent. Nevertheless, I was hired for a job and that job I did.
I must report that one night there were, in fact, shenanigans to be discouraged. It was about 11:00 p.m. (I remember this as clearly as if it were 40 years ago) and I was taking my drive around the park, prepared to give a “howdy” or see if there were any forest fires to be extinguished. No howdies, no fires.
“Everything is calm,” I thought to myself. But, as I eased the Chevy Luv along the beach I heard noise coming from beyond the shore.
“This can’t be! It’s past the allotted swimming hours!” I muttered to myself as I turned the Chevy Luv and carefully parked it between the painted parallel lines in the spot marked “Official Use Only.” “Why, it sounds like shenanigans!” I quietly exclaimed to the framed picture of Smokey the Bear I had on the dashboard.
As a park ranger I was less-equipped for emergencies than a mall cop on a Segway. (Don’t be offended, I was also once a mall cop, but that’s another story.) All I had to stop shenanigans was a flashlight and my authority. And where did this authority come from? My authority came from the State Seal patched on the shoulder of my khaki shirt. Knowing I was hired to make the park a family-friendly place, I quietly walked up to the shore and then — without warning — I turned my flashlight on and aimed it toward the 16 hoodlums floating on the diving platform twenty yards away.
“Huh? What the — “
“Uh, guys. You aren’t supposed to be out there. It’s after hours.” I said, deliberately turning so the moonlight would illuminate the State Seal of authority on my shoulder.
After about four minutes of silence, some wisecracker said, “Why don’t you come out and get us?”
I didn’t know what to say. I had never been trained for shenanigans, much less wisecrackers. For a moment I stood there contemplating my next move. After wetting myself, I got the nerve up and spoke again.
“Well, you’d better come off or . . . . you’ll be in trouble” I said, turning my arm to once again illuminate the State Seal. I then said something like, “I hope you’ll choose to do the right thing.”
I slowly walked to my Chevy Luv, slid into the driver’s seat, and drove away praying that they wouldn’t be there when I returned. (Somewhere in the distance, music from a western movie played.) Heaven forbid I would have to do something drastic. And you know what? One-by-one, they left the diving platform, downcast and sorrowed for their shenanigans.
I like to believe that society is a much safer place because of what I did that summer night at Sandy Shores State Park. I like to believe that those young fellows, especially the wisecracker, turned from their evil ways and became upstanding citizens. The next summer I took a different job — a job more in line with my personal gifting and talents. Though very thankful for the opportunity to be a park ranger, I decided being a hero was way too stressful.